Village officials frustrated that underperforming Potsdam hydro dam needs more work
BY ADAM ATKINSON
North Country This Week
POTSDAM — Village trustees are voicing frustration that more work is required on the village’s East Dam hydro facility before it functions anywhere near full capacity.
The dam is functioning at under half of what it can do due to a braking system issue.Village Administrator Greg Thompson told the board of trustees at their meeting Monday, Jan. 23 that ARPA funding may be brought to bear on the repair, if the board votes for the project as one of its list of priorities to be covered by the federal money. Thompson said a list of ARPA projects could be ready for the board to review and vote on by its next meeting.
Thompson said it was up to the board if they included the East Dam braking system in that list.
He said Trustee Monique Tirion, a biophysicist who teaches at Clarkson University, has been researching the East Dam issue.
“I know Monique has put a ton of time into looking at that East Dam braking system. It’s up to the board whether we include that or we do not include that in our ARPA expenditures,” Thompson said.
“We are still of the opinion that we can’t ramp up production of the dam without the braking system?” asked Trustee Steve Warr.
“I wouldn’t,” Thompson said.
Warr chuckled. “And it's working at less than half, less than 50 percent of what is expected,” Warr said.
Thomson confirmed that the dam is currently set to work at 45 to 47 percent capacity.
Tirion warned that the village might invest the ARPA funds into the repair and may not see a good result when all was said and done. She said the village essentially has $155,000 to work with for the East Dam rehab project from the amount of credit that the dam generated for the village, in total, last year from electricity generation.
“And, you’re going to invest another $100,000 to get this to ‘maybe’ work,” Tirion said. She said the braking experts are not knowledgeable about the turbine system, and the repair would require drilling into the dam’s concrete to route parts which seems to complicate matters.
“So there is very real possibility, that when they are done… ‘Sorry,’” she said shrugging.
“If we just paid 4 and a half million dollars to get something to run at 42 percent, or 44 percent, that’s ridiculous,” said Warr.
“I know,” Tirion agreed.
“No one is taking responsibility for not including that in the design. The flip side of that is if it works and if it's successful then we can double that figure,” Warr said.
“Right, but we thought the same thing about the West Dam,” Tirion said, referring to the other half of the village’s hydro power facility which is in need of extensive work to get it operational.
“I never thought anything about the West Dam. I wanted to get rid of that … boat anchor before we built it. But got outvoted,” Warr said.
“I think we can take a risk here for free, with these ARPA funds,” Tirion said.
“As long as we don’t spend the money. As long as we don’t spend the rest of the ARPA money which would fund it,” Warr said.
“But, I don’t think it's a risk I would be willing to take if it were my dam and it was my money,” Tirion said. “I’m inclined to accept this $155,000 and chug along as long as it lasts. That would be my recommendation.”
Tirion said she needs to talk to the consultants, private and through NYPA, that helped the village with the rehabilitation and get some more answers on the dam’s lack of performance. “How could they do that work for us and we are now producing way less than what they told us. Why was that comment, that clause, ‘You may not operate at full capacity’ not included in the analysis of our work?” she said.
The two 400-kilowatt hydro generators at the East Dam failed in 2014 and 2015 and the facility had sat idle for years.
The village officially brought the newly rehabilitated East Dam back online in the summer of 2021 after an extensive overhaul and rebuild.
Outside firms in Maine and Pennsylvania were contracted to rebuild the dam’s two hydro turbines during the rehab, while other work was done at the hydro facility. The village financed the multi-million project through New York Power Authority over 15 years.