High water

The Ashuelot River falls off the West Street dam in Keene during high water levels.

After years of research with the goal of building a hydroelectric facility on the Ashuelot River’s West Street dam in Keene, a group of local residents is throwing in the towel.

Kenneth Stewart, a board member of West Street Hydro Inc., sent a letter to Mayor Kendall W. Lane and the City Council July 9 explaining why the nonprofit organization discontinued the project.

Stewart was not reachable for comment Saturday.

“Our goal was to create a sustainable, educational green energy facility located on a historic dam,” the letter stated. “... After a great deal of study and interaction with city, state and federal agencies, we have concluded that our planned facility is not feasible.”

Those agencies detailed “environmental issues above and below the dam” that would need to be addressed, according to the letter, which did not include the names of the agencies.

The letter also cited changes to net metering, a system through which consumers with renewable energy generators, such as solar and hydro, can get paid for sharing surplus electricity with other customers of their utility company.

Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill in June that would have increased the cap and expanded eligibility for net metering in the state. In his veto statement, Sununu wrote that costs would be shifted to ratepayers and the measure amounted to “a handout to large scale energy developers.”

The letter noted that, although West Street Hydro is no longer pursuing the project, the organization believes the dam is an “important historical asset for Keene that should be preserved.”

The dam’s future has been in flux since 2011, when the N.H. Department of Environmental Services declared it deficient. The state agency determined that trees near the structure had to be cut back, the dike returned to its original configuration, and all three of the dam’s sluice gates had to be operational.

Projections for repair costs have ranged between $425,000 and $450,000, while removing the dam is estimated between $300,000 and $360,000.

Residents with West Street Hydro first approached the city in 2012 about the possibility of building a small hydropower generator at the dam. The organization donated $8,675 to the city in 2015 to help pay for a $24,500 study of the river to determine how the habitat would be affected if the dam were removed or left alone. The study, presented in June 2016, found there would be no significant losses of wetland areas in either case.

But there are other groups interested in the dam, according to a city official.

City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said Friday that Emily Vogler, an assistant professor and head of the landscape architecture department at Rhode Island School of Design, has been in communication with the city about studying the West Street dam with a group of students. Dragon said they would research possible outcomes of potential paths forward — repairing the dam, removing the dam or building a hydroelectric facility, for example — and present the results to the city.

The project is still in the planning phase, but Dragon said she hopes to have a timeline within the next few weeks.

Vogler was not immediately reachable for comment Saturday.

Sierra Hubbard can be reached at 355-8546 or at shubbard@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @SierraHubbardKS.