Relicensing Ellsworth’s hydroelectric system

By Bill Beardsley

Back 100-plus years ago, the local utility took and flooded private Ellsworth timberland by eminent domain and created Graham Lake. I know: much of this lost forest was my great-granddad’s timber limits. The resulting Graham Lake dam and reservoir justified construction of Ellsworth’s 10-megawatt Leonard Lake dam and “peaking” power plant, which pumps out 30,000 MW hours of low-cost, renewable electricity every year. An outcome: with the addition of Graham and Leonard Lake reservoirs, Ellsworth now has more freshwater shore frontage than any other coastal town. The license has been tweaked relating to adjoining private property interests, fisheries and flood control, etc., while preserving viable, low-cost power production and tax base. This current relicensing ideally results in resolving conflicts in multiple-use natural resource management in the best interest of the “whole” community. Personally, I favor relicensing in the belief it is where economic vitality, property rights, the environment and broad community interests are wed.

I sense a strong community consensus that local, renewable electricity production is a worthy aspiration, provided it is cost-effective without long-term government subsidy. Regional wind, solar and tidal generation exist and are expanding. Yet, these facilities have low capacity factors and produce little when the “wind don’t blow” and the “sun don’t shine.” Investors in such renewable facilities, from homeowners to Warren Buffett, convey it is much ado about subsidies, which go to the investor at the expense of other rate payers and tax payers. Without being able to produce power when we customers want it, our wind and solar is backed up with oil and natural gas. Yet, there is hope: consider Norway. Its peaking coastal hydro [like our Ellsworth peaking power plant on steroids] fills the power valleys on still, dark, cold nights when Norway’s offshore wind farms stop producing. Similarly, when the 30-megawatt (plus) wind farm 15 miles northeast of Ellsworth on Bull Hill slows down with lack of wind, Ellsworth’s peaking 10 MW hydropower plant meets the unmet demand, thereby reducing consumption of fossil fuel and production of CO2. Regardless of reams of counterarguments and clarifications, this is the elemental core case for relicensing.

And then, to paraphrase a home page, there is talk about our 58-mile river, our six-mile man-made reservoir, our town becoming a diversified regional crossroads…, “the town’s biggest attraction its dam….” This could be describing Ellsworth, the Union River, Graham Lake and our dam, yet it’s describing Pitlochry, the so-called “crossroads of Scotland,” and its river and Loch Tummel. Besides, our revitalizing downtown and harbor is also located where the Great Maine Woods meets the sea. “Our” dam: just a short walk from our colonial library, classical Congregational Church, vintage courthouse, City Hall and parks. It is a renowned 71-foot-high, hollow concrete Ambursen-type dam alongside a Renaissance Revival power house, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I see this beautiful complex as a catalyst Ellsworth seeks for its “downtown/waterfront” transformation, much as San Antonio, Texas, reversed its riverside decay and suburban sprawl and replaced it with a thriving waterfront of industry, commerce, professions, nonprofits, culture, accommodations and housing. I cannot imagine a Pitlochry or San Antonio failing to relicense such a signature, profitable, productive, beautiful, renewable dam, along with reasonable, thoughtful, constructive accommodation for our community way of life.


Bill Beardsley lives in Ellsworth. His doctoral studies focused on natural resource management. His career included directing Alaska’s energy office and serving as Maine commissioner of conservation.

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