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Friday, July 24, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Promoting power to the people

Canadian firm shares plans for underground electricity generation

By Seth Koenig, Times Record Staff
Friday, July 10, 2009 2:10 PM EDT
WISCASSET — On Thursday night, the public got a good look at the team of scientists who plan to put a Wiscasset site through a battery of tests, all to determine whether the location is a good fit for a $2 billion underground power plant.

Experts with specialties in geology, wildlife, plankton, fisheries and hydraulics each outlined studies planned to determine the proposed plant’s impact on everything from local deer populations to microscopic organisms drifting in the Back River.

Townspeople and other interested people who attended, in turn, called the team of scientists “thorough” and “informative,” while dubbing the overall project “interesting” and “exciting.”

The presentations, held in the Wiscasset Primary School gymnasium, came on the heels of a public bus tour of the location eyed for the plant.

Toronto-based Riverbank Power Corp. hopes to place a 100-acre facility 2,000 feet underground near the Back River. The project would use gravity to drop river water through four 250-megawatt turbines during the daytime hours — when energy values are peaking — to generate electricity for sale. The water would then be stored in underground tanks until nighttime, when energy costs less to deliver. At that point, the turbines would be placed in reverse and the water would be pumped back into the river.

Riverbank has advertised that the project will create 1,000 jobs during its four-year construction process, and would generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity when it goes online.

Thursday’s events offered many locals their first look at the proposed physical location of the plant, as well as their first contact with the specialists charged with analyzing that location.

A yellow school bus ushered a group of about 50 people from the primary school first to a spot near the Mason Station property on Birch Point. Riverbank President John Douglas told the bus riders that the location is where 50-ton trucks would emerge from a 30-foot-wide excavation tunnel carrying loads of blasted rock to either a barge or train — or both.

The entourage’s second stop came on former Maine Yankee property a short drive away, where people were encouraged to get off the bus and follow Stantek Consulting Services Senior Associate Gino Giumarro through thick woods to a remote spot near the Back River. There, Giumarro explained, would be the 264-foot-wide water intake mouth.

But while Giumarro admitted that some of the pristine woods would be sacrificed for the five- to 10-acre above-ground portion of the plant, he and the other specialists back at the primary school said some steps are already in the works to minimize the project’s environmental impact.

The bus trip then returned to the school, where riders filed into the gym to join as many as 25 others who had arrived in the meantime to hear the subsequent presentations.

Giumarro — a wildlife biologist — told the gymnasium crowd that the excavation tunnel leading to the Mason Station site several minutes away was plotted, in part, to avoid disturbing known deer wintering areas by stockpiling blasted rock at the plant site.

Additionally, Dana DeGraaf, a fisheries specialist for Stantek, was among the experts who pointed out that the water intake area would be designed to pull river water at a speed no greater than one foot per second, and would also be outfitted with a screen to keep out passing fish or debris.

“This won’t be like a vacuum sucking in water and fish,” added Douglas. “It’s a very gentle intake.”

Thursday night’s presentations kept Riverbank in step with Federal Energy Regulatory Commission procedures demanding early public and state input. Representatives from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, the State Planning Office, the Department of Marine Resources and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, among other state and federal organizations, were invited to the event.

“We believe this project can single-handedly help Maine reach its ambitious renewable energy portfolio objectives,” said Douglas, but he added that his company will put in due diligence before ever breaking ground.

“Riverbank is committed to getting the right answers,” he said. “We’ve put together what I like to call an ‘All-American’ team of scientists.”

That “All-American” team did win over many who attended Thursday’s presentation. Several people stepped up to the provided microphone to laud the scientists’ “thorough” efforts.

A few, including Wiscasset Budget Committee member Stefan Mehrl, asked about the dust and noise that would be generated by transporting the blasted rock out of the excavation tunnel to be dumped onto a barge or train for removal.

Brent Tardif of Continental Placer Inc., the firm in charge of planning for the bedrock removal, said spray bars would be set up to keep the dust down and that contractors would need to comply with state air quality permitting regulations.

“We hope to address (noise and dust concerns) in finality well before any construction starts,” said Douglas.

And although Riverbank will only develop five power plant sites nationwide — of the more than 15 locations under consideration — Douglas admitted that Wiscasset has an inside track.

“Wiscasset is the top of our list right now,” he told the audience Thursday. “We have a detailed scoring system and Wiscasset is one of the top five sites. It’s the one we’ve spent the most money on, so we’re going to put our shoulder to it and try to get it permitted.”