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Lehighton still serious on hydropower

Published September 01. 2012 09:02AM

For over 34 years, Lehighton borough officials have been exploring hydroelectric as a power source for the borough.

If such a project does become reality, it appears the borough would receive annual lease payments.

Lehighton Borough Council said this week the planning for a hydro plant is still on-going. A two-member hydroelectric committee was formed, consisting of Council President Grant Hunsicker and Vice President Scott Rehrig.

Hunsicker asked to be on the committee.

"I'd like to be on it - myself, and Scott - since we were involved with it ever since it started," Hunsicker said.

The council also discussed the eventual formation of a municipal authority regarding such a project, as well as a lease/leaseback arrangement between the authority and the project company for the hydroelectric authority.

If built, the hydroelectric plant would be constructed at the feeder end of the Pohopoco Creek in Franklin Township.

This past March, state Sen. John Yudichak and state Rep. Doyle Heffley jointly announced a $5.5 million grant for Lehighton to be applied toward the construction of the hydro plant.

The grant was approved by the Commonwealth Financing Authority through its Clean Energy Program.

The funding was to both Lehighton and Summit Water Nexus, with the understanding that Lehighton would construct the plant and sell it upon completion to Summit Water Nexus. Lehighton would get annual lease payments of $650,000.

The total project cost is estimated at $15.7 million.

It is estimated that energy cost savings to the borough would be $2.3 million over 50 years.

Since studies first occurred in the late 1970s on a hydroelectric plant, Lehighton Borough Council has abandoned and then revisited the potential project numerous times.

In April 2009, the council agreed unanimously to discontinue the planning phase after being advised such a plant would not be self-sustainable until the year 2041.

Then in Sept. 2011, Gravity Renewables Group of Boulder, Colorado, a firm specializing in hydroelectric power, approached Lehighton Borough Council in Sept. 2011 and indicated it is interested in constructing the plant for Lehighton and then operating it.

Gravity Renewables is a consultant for Summit Water Nexus.

Although no Municipal Authority was formed, the council was advised that this is a future option regarding the hydro plant.

Attorney James Nanovic, solicitor for the borough, said a conference call was held with Summit Water Nexus and involved himself, Borough Manager Nicole Beckett, and borough secretary Brenda Koons.

The main reason for the conference was Summit Water advising the local officials that if the borough retains the permit, it might consider assigning it to an authority.

The solicitor added that the borough should not take action yet because it must be determined whether the permit as well as the government grant can be assigned to an authority.

In 1978, then Borough Manager Mortimer Smedley introduced the concept of utilizing Beltzville Lake for a hydroelectric project.

Two years later, the borough obtained an exclusive permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

After performing a feasibility study, a license application to develop hydroelectric power was submitted to FERC in 1983. FERC approval of the license application was granted on Oct. 29, 1987.

In 1991, Lehighton Borough Council agreed to sell the license to Williams and Broome Inc. of Reading for just $1. The stipulation was that if the firm can develop hydroelectric power at Beltzville Lake with the use of the license, it would pay Lehighton $5,000 for 20 years, or $100,000 total.

If hydro power cannot be developed, the firm will retain the license and owe the borough nothing more.

The license expired and in 2006, the borough re-applied for it.

Then in 2011, it was agreed to explore the partnership with Gravity Renewables.

Beckett is scheduled to give an update on the status of the project during a meeting of the Lehighton Area Council of the Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 11 at the Beacon Restaurant in Lehighton.

For more information or to make reservations for the Chamber event, e mail or phone 610-377-2191.

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