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John Ragonese, FERC license manager for Great River Hydro and a former TransCanada employee, speaks April 20 at a meeting in Westminster.

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Hydro relicensing moving ahead, new owner says

WESTMINSTER—John Ragonese uses three words — lengthy, complicated and expensive — to describe the federal government’s licensing process for hydroelectric dams.

But he is promising that Great River Hydro, the new owner of the Vernon, Bellows Falls and Wilder stations, won’t miss a beat in seeking Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license renewals for those Connecticut River facilities.

In fact, Great River Hydro will be filing a license application with FERC on May 1 — less than two weeks after taking ownership of the dams. Ragonese said the company will build on years of relicensing work conducted by TransCanada, the hydro stations’ former owner and his former employer.

“There’s no wholesale shift at all in our approach to relicensing,” said Ragonese, who now is Great River’s FERC license manager.

As Ragonese spoke April 20 at a meeting at the Westminster Institute, Great River Hydro had just closed on its $1.065 billion purchase of 13 hydroelectric properties on the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers. Great River Hydro is a subsidiary of Boston-based ArcLight Capital Partners.

Ragonese and several other former TransCanada staffers who attended the meeting still were thinking about transitional details like new email addresses. “We’ve only been at it for about 12 hours,” Ragonese said with a smile. “So far, so good.”

The fact that Great River Hydro promised to continue to employ TransCanada’s experienced staffers was one of the reasons Vermont officials supported the sale.

Several new licenses

The state Public Service Board also has noted that Great River pledged to pursue new licenses for the Vernon, Bellows Falls, and Wilder dams. Each of those facilities lies partly in Vermont and partly in New Hampshire.

The three dams — which combined have more than 100 megawatts of generating capacity — require a FERC license to continue producing power. And Great River’s purchase comes at a critical time for those licenses, which are scheduled to expire April 30, 2019.

Federal statute says an application for relicensing must be filed two years prior to expiration, and that puts Great River on the spot to get massive amounts of paperwork to FERC very soon.

That will happen on schedule, Ragonese said, because TransCanada has been working for almost five years toward relicensing the three dams. Documents posted on a website dedicated to the process — www.transcanada-relicensing.com — show that TransCanada filed a notice of intent to seek new licenses on Oct. 31, 2012.

“We started studies as early as 2013,” Ragonese said. “We actually started some studies earlier.”

Those studies have covered topics such as erosion, endangered species, and recreation. TransCanada also hired a company to fly the river corridor and produce a detailed, high-resolution survey via a method involving lasers.

However, not all of the necessary relicensing studies are complete. “So, we’re filing an application [May 1], but we also anticipate that we’re going to have to be potentially revising that application,” Ragonese said.

That’s in part due to the fact that the December 2014 shutdown of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant delayed the hydro relicensing study process. The Vernon plant’s closure drastically altered its Connecticut River discharge, and TransCanada received a one-year license extension in order to accurately account for such changes.

“We were planning to do studies in the river before [Vermont Yankee] shut down,” Ragonese said. “And we didn’t want to study a condition that wouldn’t exist after it shut down.”

A complicated endeavor

In general, though, Ragonese said complexity is the main reason TransCanada/Great River hasn’t yet completed all of its relicensing work.

“These studies take a long time. There’s a tremendous amount of data,” he said. “We’re spending millions of dollars on these studies. It makes sense to make sure that the studies are completed [and] agencies have an opportunity to review them and comment. In some cases, we’re going back out in the field to redo them.”

So even though Great River is submitting its license application soon, “generally speaking, there’s a long way to go,” Ragonese said.

Public comment also will play a role in the relicensing process. Windham Regional Commission polled its member towns last year when TransCanada put its dams on the market, and Executive Director Chris Campany expects to again seek municipal reaction to Great River’s relicensing proposals.

“We’re going to be soliciting from the towns, what are your issues, what are your interests,” Campany said.

That won’t preclude individual towns from weighing in with FERC, Campany said. But he added that, “to me, the more we can do this in concert with one another, the better off we’ll be.”

The combination of ongoing studies, public comment, and federal review would seem to indicate a lengthy schedule for relicensing. Asked whether he expects FERC to issue new licenses for the three dams by April 2019, Ragonese said he couldn’t speculate.

“I can tell you that ... there are provisions to have annual extensions of your license” if necessary, he said.

Not all of the April 20 meeting focused on relicensing. With Great River Hydro’s purchase having just been completed, some local officials asked about tax appeals — an ongoing, high-stakes issue under TransCanada’s ownership — as well as basic questions about corporate structures and communications contacts for municipalities.

Ragonese said he couldn’t get into the details of any tax appeals. But he characterized Great River as “a very small company that’s centered directly on these hydro projects,” and he told meeting attendees that the company will be responsive to local questions and concerns.

“There’s no gray area,” Ragonese said. “Everything that was [TransCanada’s] obligation is our obligation.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #405 (Wednesday, April 26, 2017).

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