County keeps Mason hydro plant job in house

By MIKE FERGUSON, Baker City Herald October 23, 2008 01:55 pm

Baker County Commissioners decided Wednesday to take off one of Jason Yencopal’s hats.

Yencopal, the county’s facilities manager, has also been shepherding the county’s application to build a hydroelectric plant at Mason Dam through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s licensing program.

He’s performed some studies himself, filled out scads of paperwork, met deadlines and otherwise kept the proposed 3-megawatt project afloat as it wends through the regulatory process.

But now he can toss his facility manager’s hat away. He’s going to manage the Mason Dam project full-time.

What gave Baker County Commission Chair Fred Warner Jr. the idea to recommend Yencopal for the job, Warner told his two fellow commissioners Wednesday, was the price tag that four consultants were going to charge the county to do the work that Yencopal has been doing as a part of his job.

The estimates ranged from $750,000 to $1.5 million, Warner said.

Yencopal makes $46,488 annually.

A committee composed of Warner, Yencopal and Randy Joseph, chair of the county’s Power Generation Task Force, unanimously decided that the consultants’ higher-than-expected estimates “weren’t in the interest of Baker County,” Warner said.

“We decided we could do it cheaper in-house,” he said. “In order for Jason to succeed, he’s got to do just Mason Dam.”

Yencopal told commissioners he realizes there will be “a steep learning curve” with his new responsibilities.

“I jumped into this last year, and some stuff had happened already that I didn’t know about,” he said. “It’s a challenge I look forward to taking on.”

The county will hire two new facilities workers, since Yencopal’s employee, Pat Corley, is retiring Oct. 31. For the time being, Warner said, Yencopal will have the dual titles “project manager” and “facilities manager” in case a future county commission can’t find a role for Yencopal.

There probably will be more construction projects down the line for Yencopal to manage, Warner said. One possibility is a work release center that the county would like to build someday next to the county jail.

Building a work release center will depend on whether the county can land a grant to fund it.

Warner said he expects Yencopal to work with the new facilities employees as they train for their new jobs. For the most part, though, Yencopal will concentrate on his new duties.

The current FERC timetable shows the agency deciding in 2011 whether to issue the county a license to build and operate the plant, and for construction to be complete by 2012 or 2013.

The next hurdle is a stakeholders’ meeting set for March. At that meeting, groups potentially impacted by the hydroelectric plant, including the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Environmental Quality, will let Yencopal, FERC and others know what they think of the quality of the studies that have been performed so far.

Those studies cover such topics as the potential effects the hydroelectric plant could have on fish habitat in the Powder River downstream from Mason Dam.

It’s possible, Warner said, that even more studies could be ordered, although that’s not likely so late in the process.

The county will use state and federal grants as well as local taxpayer money to build the plant, which will cost between $4 million and $5 million. The most recent estimates show that in non-drought years, the county will be able to afford to pay off the loans, cover the operational expense and still turn a profit.

Paying off the loans will take an estimated 20 years; after that time, the facility could churn up to $200,000 per year into the county’s general fund, depending on the amount of water in the reservoir.

Studies have shown that in just three of the past 35 years an energy-producing  plant at Mason Dam would not have turned a profit, Warner said.

“We’ll make money almost every step of the way,” Warner said. “My only issue is will we have enough expertise to do the project?”

Whatever’s lacking can be hired out piecemeal, Warner said.

“Jason has already done the studies” that state and federal agencies have required of the county, Warner said. “He’s already got the complicated part done.”

Using a federal law called the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, the county will negotiate a deal to sell power produced at the dam site to a utility. The rate the county can charge will be negotiated with the utility through what’s called a power purchase agreement, which would guarantee a price for energy over the life of the contract.

The county can use the agreement in order to help secure funding to build the plant.