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Watertown’s hydro plant performing well this winter

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It’s been a good winter for the city of Watertown’s hydroelectric plant, but it has little to do with the amount of snow that has fallen.

Water Superintendent Michael J. Sligar said Tuesday that the hydroelectric plant off Marble Street is on a record pace for February, generating 22 percent more power than usual for the month. “We’re running pretty well,” he said, attributing the production strength to recent rainfall.

What’s good for the plant is good for city coffers. Energy from the Black River plant is used to power city buildings, and the rest is sold to National Grid for 17.59 cents per kilowatt hour.

Plant revenue through Jan. 31 is $180,113 above what was budgeted for the first seven months of the fiscal year, City Comptroller James E. Mills said.

In the past, daily power production for February has averaged 43,565 kilowatt hours. But, Mr. Sligar said, the daily average this month has been 53,289 kwh. February normally is the third slowest month of the year, behind August and September.

The plant also is on pace to break the record for the first seven months of the fiscal year, producing more than 12.4 million kilowatt hours through Jan. 31, compared with the average of 10.9 million kwh for those months in the past, Mr. Sligar said. The current record was set in 2008-09, when the plant generated 13.9 million kwh from July through January.

While the north country has been hit hard this winter with about 20 separate snowstorms, wintry weather has little effect on how much hydroelectric power is generated by the plant. Instead, it’s all about rainfall and whether the plant’s three turbines get blocked by ice chunks, Mr. Sligar said.

If the snow melts too quickly or ice floes jam the Black River, there is “an adverse effect,” Mr. Sligar said.

“It’s like a big strainer,” he said. “If something blocks the strainer, it doesn’t work.”

Production could have been better if it weren’t for some ice jams along the river early in winter, he said.

He said he wished a new $240,000 trash rack and raking system, which the city intends to buy and install later this year, were already in place. The new equipment could break up the ice more effectively than the 20-year-old existing system, he said.

Through Jan. 31, the plant has generated $1,897,696 in revenues this fiscal year, compared with $1,227,584 for the same seven-month period last year.

But last year was an off year, so it has to be put into perspective, Mr. Mills said. Revenues were down overall for 2012-13 because of a drought that left a shortfall of $415,467 in the city budget, he said, adding that the situation could change quickly if drought occurs again this year.

“There are too many variables and it’s only February,” he said.

Still, the better-than-expected hydropower revenues will help offset what has been only bad news for sales tax revenues. So far, sales tax revenues are down $669,848 this fiscal year, Mr. Mills said.

The city’s franchise agreement to sell excess electricity to National Grid began in 1991 and expires in 2029, when the rate the company pays the city is scheduled to jump to 34.7 cents per kwh. The arrangement came about after the city decided against going into municipal power.

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