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High electric rates roil Mt. Washington summit users

May 20, 2009
GREEN'S GRANT — The per-kilowatt electric rates set by the state Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) and further delays in the completion of Phase III — the final phase — of the electrification project atop Mount Washington continue to trouble summit electricity users — the Mount Washington Observatory (MWO) and Citadel Communications of Maine, that operates WHOM-949.

MWO is a member of the Mount Washington Commission which met and discussed a number of issues on Friday morning in the Auto Road's conference room (see related article); Citadel is not but would very much like to be the successor to the seat previously held by WMTW-TV (Channel-8), the TV company that sold its summit facility to the state in 2002.

Last year — the first full year in which electricity supplied by Public Service of New Hampshire was carried in cables buried alongside the Mt. Washington Cog Railway tracks to the summit — the state did not recoup its costs.

On March 1, users were informed that the new rate would increase by 16 cents per kilowatt (KW) to 71 cents per KW, up from the previous .55 cents.

DRED consulted with the state Public Utilities Commission (NHPUC), but the NHPUC does not consider the summit electrical system a public utility.

In figuring the cost per KW, the state included depreciation and the 45,000 gallons of kerosene that must be purchased and stored on the cone of Mount Washington for use in backup generators, the work time of State Park employees, and, of course, the PSNH charges for power. By the time the project is completed, the state expects that it will have spent over $2.55 million, including fire insurance proceeds, in capital costs to bring grid power to the summit.

Commission chairman Paul Fitzgerald said he did not think that electricity users should have to "pay for the mistakes made by others." He was referring to the construction of a concrete pad in front of the Sherman Adams Building (SAB) and a four-unit precast concrete building in which switches, generators and other equipment were to have been located. Because of unforeseen snowmelt and other problems, engineers in the state Bureau of Public Works who were overseeing the project determined that this setup would not work satisfactorily, and this part of the project was abandoned. Instead, the backup generators and switches will be installed in a new enclosure under the canopy, making a permanent structure where a temporary one was cobbled together following the devastating fire on Feb. 9, 2003, that destroyed the former WMTW-TV facility.

The first bond-and-interest payments on a bond floated by the state to fund the bulk of the electrification project was $147,000, reported Diane Holmes, assistant manager of the Mt. Washington State Park. The bond will be paid off in 2027.

Commission members agreed that a consultant or third party should look into exactly what is included in DRED's list of costs that they used to set the rates.

Tim Moore of Citadel Communications pointed out that his company's costs rose by $32,000 a year and they are now paying a $12,000-a-month electric bill.

Although the Cog Railway uses no electricity on the summit, its co-owner Wayne Presby agreed that it is important to get a handle on how costs were figured.

The State Park pays the same electric rate as all other users do.

DRED architect Tom Mansfield explained to the Commission that he anticipates further delays in completing Phase III — the final phase of the electrification project.

The state is still negotiating with Cianbro Construction to close out the contract; the difference between the two parties is approximately $20,000, Mr. Mansfield said. Once the contract is terminated, the new scope of work must be advertised, rebid, and awarded, with the contract approved by Governor and Council. This could mean that the summer-early fall construction time could go by without the work being completed.

Commission members urged that everything that could legally be done to speed up this process, be done.

Mr. Mansfield said that it is possible the work could be broken down into smaller projects to allow some work to be done in 2009. Mr. Moore of Citadel Communications pointed out that the electric cable from the Sherman Adams Building to their transmitters remains undersized, which means that the company's service could cease at any time.

The expected delay in completing Phase III also means that the work needed to replace the single-wall fuel lines with double-wall lines cannot be done as part of the electrical work, as previously thought, but instead will be tucked into the new sewer treatment plant project. The state Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) gave one extension, but is unwilling to grant another, which, Park Manager Mike Pelchat pointed out, is understandable, given the summit's very sensitive environment.

The packaged wastewater sewage treatment plant project is on track and NHDES has issued a permit, which includes Forest Service approval, Mr. Mansfield reported.

White Mountain Communication, the company that did all the excavation and trenching work for the electric cable installation from the Cog's Marshfield Base Station to the summit and headed up by Dennis Tupick of Randolph, will do the installation work. The main components of the LifeWater treatment plant are being shipped from Alaska.

The 40-by-8-by 9-foot building will be set into the slope and a retaining wall built in an effort to reduce its silhouette, but nonetheless it will be visible, Mr. Mansfield said.

The current holding system will be retained as a potential overflow backup system, but the old sand filter system can no longer be used under any circumstances. Advice will be sought from the U. S. Forest Service as to what level of removal will be required.

Guy Gosselin of Gorham, who represents the public on the Commission and chairs its the Master Plan subcommittee, reported on the subcommittee's work to date.

Martha McLeod of Franconia, said that she has "process issues" and urged that public hearings be held when the subcommittee has a Plan draft in hand, and that, in general, the public be invited to become involved and provide input.

The former state representative pointed out, "People feel ownership in Mount Washington State Park; it's owned by the people of New Hampshire."

The next Commission meeting is scheduled at 10 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 18, at a place to be determined.

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