Bear Swamp hydroelectric generation project up for license renewal
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FLORIDA — The owners of the Bear Swamp hydroelectric generation system on the Deerfield River have begun the process of applying to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to renew the facility's operating license, which was granted in 1970.
FERC held two public information sessions this past week in North Adams to explain the initial phase of the process — allowing individuals, organizations or state or federal agencies with an interest in how the facility will operate to suggest what studies should be included in a planned environmental assessment.
The current owner, Brookfield Renewable Energy Group, is the successor to New England Power Co., which developed the sprawling facility. A new license could cover from 30 to 50 years — the length of time FERC is authorized to consider for a renewal.
The facility was constructed over six years (1968-74) along the Deerfield in Rowe and Florida, just south of the Vermont border. It cost more than $100 million in 1970s-era dollars, and the construction employed hundreds if not thousands of workers. Bear Swamp opened in 1974.
The facility consists of the Bear Swamp Pumped Storage facility and the adjacent Fife Brook Hydroelectric facility and dam, which work in tandem to produce electricity — primarily for peak usage periods — and to regulate the flow of the river.
According to the Brookfield Renewable Energy Group website, the Bear Swamp facility can generate 600 megawatts of electricity at peak production and the Fife Brook facility can generate 10 megawatts.
Fife Brook, named for a stream that entered the Deerfield at that point, is a traditional, in-line hydro generation facility, with water behind a dam that is released through a turbine system to generate electricity. It is similar to numerous other hydro stations upstream and downstream from the Bear Swamp site.
However, the Bear Swamp pumped-storage system is more rare. It includes a lengthy underground tunnel system with large twin turbines and a generation plant within a large chamber that during off-peak hours pumps water up to a large reservoir more than 700 feet higher than the river water held behind the Fife Brook dam.
Power is created during peak electricity demand periods by later releasing the water back through the turbines to the lower level, quickly ramping up the electricity output to maximum generation within a few minutes. The upper reservoir, surrounded by dikes created during construction, is at about 1,600 feet of elevation.
The 600-megawatt capacity at peak performance is close to the 620 megawatt peak output of the closed Vermont Yankee nuclear generation plan, which however could operate continually rather than only part of the day.
The Fife Brook facility has a 900-foot wide dam across the river that is about 130 feet high. It is also primarily from that site that scheduled water releases facilitating rafting, kayaking and other recreational activities on the Deerfield, are issued.
Bear Swamp also has hundreds of acres for hunting, boat access and hiking, and a popular visitors center in Florida that has exhibits describing the facility and attracts thousands each year. During the warmer months, there are a total of 106 scheduled releases of water from the dam that allow whitewater rafting, kayaking and related sports in the Deerfield.
The facility's effect on the flow of the Deerfield River downstream, which in turn could affect fish and wildlife and other aspects of the local environment, will likely be addressed in the environmental assessment. Questions also were asked by anglers during the North Adams sessions about the warning system that signals a pending water release.
FERC is currently reviewing a Pre-Application Document (PAD) from Bear Swamp Power Co., LLC, the operating entity, said commission official John Baummer, who led the morning and evening sessions in North Adams on Wednesday.
Those attending included representatives from the company, angler groups, other environmental groups, and local, state and federal government agencies.
The next step in the long licensing process, Baummer said, is to gather written requests from the public, groups or agencies about what the coming environmental assessment of the short- and long-term effects of the facility will be on the river and the surrounding geographic area should include or address.
Those study requests are due April 18, and Bear Swamp Power will file its proposed study plan by June 2. FERC will hold a meeting on that plan and there will be an opportunity for stakeholder comments.
The environmental analysis will consider at a minimum the alternatives of continuing to operate the Bear Swamp facility as it has operated under the current license, with no new environmental protections, mitigation or enhancements required, according to a FERC release.
Other possibilities for FERC to consider are whether to accept the applicant's proposed action or to approve alternatives to the proposed action.
Bear Swamp proposes to continue to operate as required in its existing license, which expires March 31, 2020. The company does not propose any development changes, according to the handout from FERC, but it was authorized in 2008 to upgrade the turbine system at Bear Swamp, and that work must be completed by 2019.
A determination on a study plan will be made by FERC by Oct. 30, and that will be followed by a period during which study disputes can be resolved and the plan amended if necessary.
Updated plan reports and comment and dispute resolution periods will continue through 2016 and 2017, according to the FERC timetable, and a formal license renewal application is expected from Bear Swamp in April 2018.
The licensing process will include public sessions and opportunities to comment, leading to an expected decision on renewal in 2019.
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