Upstream struggle for hydroelectric Maine case: Lifted license highlights environmental concerns about power dams.

December 10, 1997

DEMOLISHING a working hydroelectric power plant, a proven generator of "clean air" electricity, might seem to be environmental folly these days.

But there is sound basis for the historic decision by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission not to renew the license of a 160-year-old power dam on the Kennebec River in Maine. In this case, the old textile mill dam was costing more in damage to the river and its fisheries than the worth of the power it produced.

Fishways and other changes to the Augusta dam would be needed to permit the upstream passage of spawning salmon and sturgeon beyond the dam. The cost would be prohibitive, the hydroelectric power output minimal.

There's no indication that other hydroelectric dams are in danger of losing federal licenses. Rather, the Maine case underlines the rising importance of fisheries and recreation as economic and environmental resources that must be balanced against other interests.

Many power dams, including those controlled by Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. and PECO Energy Co., have built fish ladders to meet the needs of migrating, spawning fish. Fish lifts and bypasses added to dams on the Susquehanna River have reopened hundreds of miles of spawning grounds to HTC once-disappearing American shad and river herring. The results have been satisfactory, even if the river's natural flow remains restricted by the dams.

Despite its considerable promise in the first half of this century, hydroelectric power is still a small part of the U.S. energy picture, producing less than 4 percent of national consumption. It is harder for new dams to get government approval, facing worries about flooding of shoreline homes as well as other affects on the environment.

The search for cleaner sources of power today is focused on other alternatives: wind and solar and biomass. While giant water-driven turbines are still important sources of inexpensive power for parts of North America, the future of hydroelectric dams is limited by a growing recognition that they can have serious effects on watershed environments.

Pub Date: 12/10/97

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