Idle Port Angeles city hydro site still costs taxpayers money

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

PORT ANGELES — What is the value of a small, city-owned hydroelectric facility that has been shut off since April 2012?

That’s what an advisory committee to the City Council wants to know before recommending what to do with the city’s Morse Creek hydroelectric project to the full council.

“Before we even make a decision, I’d like to know what it’s really worth,” Sissi Bruch, city councilwoman and member of the city’s Utility Advisory Committee, said during a recent committee meeting.

The hydroelectric facility, located about 5 miles south of where the creek passes under U.S. Highway 101 — and tiny compared with the former power plants on the Elwha River that have been since removed — had historically used the flowing waters of the creek to provide roughly 0.3 percent of the city’s total power usage, said Phil Lusk, the city’s deputy director of power and telecommunication systems.

Brought online in 1987 and shuttered between 1997 and 2004 because of increased operating costs, the facility has now become a costly “liability” for the city after it was shut down in April last year following the failure of a key piece of machinery, Public Works and Utilities Director Craig Fulton said.

“I would like the city to get out of the liability of this facility,” Fulton told Utility Advisory Committee members.

“It’s a money-losing proposition any way we look at it unless we get rid of it.”

The facility has been in “standby” mode since November 2012 at the order of the City Council, Lusk said.

Standby mode means keeping the facility shut down but maintaining it so that it could be turned back on relatively quickly, Lusk has said.

During the first full months of 2013, Lusk estimated that the city spent $25,000 on the site, including $6,224 in direct labor for having a city technician regularly inspect the various components that comprise it.

The maintenance is one of various requirements placed upon the city as part of the license the city has for the facility with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Lusk said.

Another portion of the $25,000 is the roughly $6,000 the city paid in electricity costs to the Clallam County Public Utility District for keeping power flowing to the facility’s generator room, Lusk said.

This is necessary to keep condensation from building up in the room and damaging electronic control panels, he said.

“Keeping the facility in its current standby mode; not a permanent solution,” Lusk said.

City staff came to the advisory committee with two options: permanently retire the facility and retain ownership or sell it.

“Clearly, there’s no economic interest in the city continuing to operate it,” Lusk said.

That’s because repairing the facility for an estimated $100,000 and turning it back on would cost more than the city currently pays the Bonneville Power Administration for electricity, he said.

In an interview after the Dec. 10 utility committee meeting, Lusk said he will work to determine a more concrete value for the site and possible ways to reduce maintenance costs.

“Is there a possible way we can put the facility in more of a cold storage than we have it right now? [That] is something that we’re going to be exploring in 2014,” Lusk said.

The facility, built across a concrete water diversion weir constructed in 1924 to provide the city of Port Angeles with water, is the only hydroelectric project to Lusk’s knowledge built on the North Olympic Peninsula other than the former Elwha and Glines Canyon dams.

The city stopped using the weir and accompanying 11,400-foot pipeline as a water source in 1971 when the Elwha River became the city’s main water supply, according to Peninsula Daily News archives.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: December 16. 2013 6:52PM
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