There’s something fishy about a decision to close a Redding-area power plant
Since 1919, the Kilarc-Cow Creek hydroelectric project has been churning out clean, renewable energy in the foothills 30 miles east of Redding. But Kilarc-Cow Creek’s future seems bleak now that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has told PG&E to begin shutting it down.
Meanwhile, members of a rural community fearful of losing a valuable resource hope a Davis-based renewable-energy company can help save the project.
The proposed shutdown could cost PG&E’s ratepayers as much as $20 million—$10.7 million to decommission the project and an estimated $10 million to replace it with it another renewable-energy source, as required by the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard.
That’s a hefty price, considering there’s no evidence that Kilarc-Cow Creek is harming endangered chinook salmon and steelhead trout, as state and federal wildlife agencies have charged in leveraging PG&E to abandon the project.
For its part, PG&E insists in FERC documents that, because it has been compelled to reduce water flows to protect fish, operating the project has become unprofitable.
Enter Richard Ely, principal and chief engineer of Davis Hydro, who is swimming against a strong current as he attempts to convince FERC to grant his company a license to run the project, which consists of two separate water-driven turbine generators, one on Old Cow Creek and the other on South Cow.
He believes that by shutting down the plant on the South Cow and continuing to operate Kilarc on the Old Cow, the project can meet environmental regulations and still generate a profit.
“We could operate the Kilarc facility and use the proceeds to finance restoration of fish habitat on the South Cow,” Ely said, noting that his company successfully operates a similar project on the Dog River on Vermont, famous for its trout fishing. “For a number of reasons, that makes sense.”
The Kilarc powerhouse generates a total peak output of 3 megawatts of electricity—easily enough to supply the 800 rural households in the Cow Creek watershed, which includes the small, rustic towns of Whitmore, Millville and Shingletown. Locals are overwhelmingly in favor of retaining the Kilarc-Cow Creek project, and are angered that neither PG&E nor the many government agencies involved in the decision to shutter the plant bothered consulting with the community.
Kilarc-Cow Creek came up for re-licensing by FERC in March 2002. At the prodding of the National Marine Fisheries Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the state Department of Fish & Game, the state Water Resources Control Board, Friends of the River, Trout Unlimited and other agencies concerned about the endangered fish, PG&E agreed to abandon the project in March 2005.
However, none of the agencies involved in the agreement, all of which are headquartered some 200 miles south in either Sacramento or San Francisco, bothered to inform local residents that Kilarc was to be shut down.
They were unaware of the decision until June 2005, when Synergics—a Maryland-based company that specializes in operating renewable-energy systems and operates a small hydroelectric plant one mile downstream from Kilarc—notified FERC it intended to apply for the license.
“That was the first time local stakeholders were informed of the issue,” said longtime Whitmore resident Glenn Dye, a retired space-shuttle engineer and chairman of the Save Kilarc committee, a growing and increasingly vocal group of residents angered by what they see as the attempt to bypass their input.
Wayne Rogers, president of Synergics, said the Maryland company was stymied at every turn by PG&E, which refused to divulge any of the vast amount of data it has accumulated operating the plant for nearly 90 years. Lacking the data, Synergics was turned down by FERC in January. Rogers is still bitter about the rejection.
“I wish there was a way we could have worked it out,” Rogers said. “We attempted to get support from the governor, anyone we could convince that closing [Kilarc-Cow Creek] doesn’t make sense for the people of California. No one was willing to take a stand.”
Kelly Catlett, a Sacramento attorney for Friends of the River, stands by that organization’s support for decommissioning Kilarc-Cow Creek, saying that PG&E had declared the project unprofitable. When it was pointed out that the company’s declaration came only after groups such as Friends of the River demanded that the water flow to the generators be cut, she deferred to the scientists at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the state Department of Fish & Game.
“They did all the science,” she said. “That’s their bailiwick. I’m just a lawyer.”
But no government agency has done a study of the upper reaches of Cow Creek, Rogers insists, a fact confirmed by NMFS and Fish & Wildlife (neither PG&E nor DFG returned phone calls by press time).
On the other hand, Synergics, whose Olsen powerhouse a mile downstream from Kilarc is five miles upstream from a 15-foot waterfall that prohibits passage of chinook and steelhead, has extensively studied the upper reaches of Old Cow.
“There is absolutely no evidence that chinook and steelhead have ever made it beyond the falls,” Rogers said. “I ask the DFG to produce any evidence that they have. It’s absolutely false.”
More than 700 locals signed a petition endorsing Synergic’s proposal to operate the project, which is a valuable local resource for reasons besides power generation. The five-acre reservoir that feeds the Kilarc powerhouse is one of few recreational opportunities in an area populated by a high number of retirees, but just as important it provides the only water supply for aerial firefighters in a dry, forested region that’s experienced three major fires in the past 10 years.
If PG&E had bothered to consult with the people who will be most affected by the closure, it might have discovered how important the project is to the inhabitants of the Cow Creek watershed.
“When PG&E decided the plant wasn’t economical because of the reduced water flow, the input of the public wasn’t involved in the discussion,” said resident Bob Roth, a retired electrician who’s lived in Whitmore for 25 years and sits on the Shasta Trinity Fly Fishers conservation committee. Like many avid sports fishermen, Roth has an interest in protecting the environment, but he thinks the agencies involved have erred in the Kilarc case.
“We are concerned about conservation,” he said. “But we think they got this project wrong, and we think that’s maybe because they’re not local.”
In early March, after Synergics had been turned down and just two weeks before PG&E’s official announcement that it planned to surrender its license, Davis Hydro’s Ely learned that the project might be available. He immediately discovered that sentiment within the community was high to retain the project.
“No one has listened to the local people,” Ely said. “They’re unanimously against abandoning the project.”
“Someone needs to point out that this is lunacy,” Rogers said, noting that leaving Kilarc-Cow Creek in place costs nothing. “Ratepayers are going to pay $10.7 million to shut it down and another $10 million to build something somewhere else. Where’s the balance in that?”
Dye, for one, has contacted his congressman, Wally Herger. But Herger has so far been no match for FERC’s bureaucratic inertia.
“I have been contacted by some constituents who understandably do not wish to lose the recreational opportunities provided by Kilarc reservoir,” Herger said. “I certainly sympathize with them, as the reservoir has been a wonderful local amenity. I am personally a strong proponent of hydropower. It is a very clean and reliable form of energy. Regrettably, environmental regulations have made it difficult to cost-effectively relicense some of our nation’s hydroelectric facilities.”
Ely hopes to convince FERC that Davis Hydro’s plan to run the project can meet regulatory guidelines. It won’t be easy—its first request to have the notice-of-intent deadline waived has been rebuffed at the request of Fish &Wildlife and Friends of the River. But Ely thinks an argument can be made to keep the Kilarc powerhouse open to help the fish, since its reservoir provides much needed cooling water for the salmon that do spawn in lower reaches of Cow Creek.
He hopes that NMFS—"which has a tendency to send torpedoes upriver to blow up dams"—will take the bait.
“If we can’t convince NMFS, then the project won’t go,” Ely said. “We’re not going to do something that doesn’t make sense.”