Eastern Utilities complete puzzle with sale of historic hydro plant

Blackstone Valley Electric Co. struck a deal to sell part of a historic102-year-old downtown Pawtucket hydro plant earlier this month. It was the last power generation asset left in the portfolio of BVE’s parent company Eastern Utilities Associates.

”This is the final puzzle piece of the sale of all our power generation pieces,” said Todd McLeish, an EUA spokesman.

The site is operated remotely through a monitoring system at BVE’s Lincoln offices and through routine checks by company workers. None of those workers will be affected by the sale, however, and they will continue working for BVE, McLeish said. The Bridge Mill Power Station, which is listed on legal documents as Pawtucket Hydro, generates about 1.2 megawatts of energy or enough energy to power 1,300 local households, according to McLeish. The red brick building, located on the Blackstone River directly opposite Apex, was opened in 1896 and originally generated about 750 kilowatts of energy or less than 1 megawatt.

Equipment used to divert water from the adjacent Blackstone River into a turbine engine in the building, which then generates power, was sold to Contech Development Corp. of Great Falls, Virginia, for $250,000. Contech owner Robert Carey already owns several hydro plants.

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BVE, however, will retain control of the Roosevelt Avenue Extension building, because equipment there is used to distribute power as well as a museum. Site separators must be constructed within the building before the sale is completed to make sure EUA operates its distribution section separate from Contech’s generation section.

It is the oldest, operating hydro plant in New England and the fifth oldest operating hydro plant in the country, he added. The facility, which served as BVE’s headquarters until its Lincoln office was built in the 1960s, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

BVE opened the museum section in 1996 for its 100th anniversary and about four groups a month tour the facility. Tour groups are typically composed of engineering students or groups interested in the area’s industrial history, including nearby Slater Mill.

The museum display includes an old turbine engine, copies of the plant’s original blueprints, and a display of electricity meters, including the Sangamo quarter meter. That meter, it is believed, was installed on poor residential customers’ homes in the early 1900s and customers had to insert a quarter in the top of the machine to pre-pay for electric service.

”Either they didn’t want the big bills at the end of the month, or we didn’t trust them to pay a big bill at the end of the month,” McLeish said.

Once the sale of all its generation assets is completed, EUA officials expect to lower the stranded cost fee now on customer electricity bills. But, McLeish said, that will not likely happen until the spring and EUA officials aren’t sure what the impact will be.

EUA, which owns BVE and Newport Electric Corp., has slowly been selling off its partial ownership in seven plants and just over half-a-dozen power purchase contracts over the past year. In all total, EUA was responsible for generating and purchasing about 1,000 megawatts, or million watts, of energy to serve about 300,000 customers in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

In order to decrease the area’s traditionally high electricity costs, both Rhode Island and Massachusetts passed laws ordering electric utilities to divest their interests in power plants and any contracts committing them to buy power from certain facilities. The idea is to separate the business of generating electricity and distributing it to customers, then create competition by letting new companies compete to sell electricity.

New England Electric Systems sold its interests in some 18 plants in one fell swoop, when it struck a $1.6 billion deal with U.S. Generating Co., an electricity generation firm from San Francisco.

That sale, which included the new Manchester Street Station in Providence and Brayton Point in Somerset, Mass., was partly responsible for decreasing customer’s bills by about 7 percent a month, or $12 and change for the average residential customer using about 500 kilowatt hours each month.

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