RALEIGH, North Carolina — A New Hampshire investment firm is challenging Alcoa Inc.'s bid for a new federal license to operate dams along one of North Carolina's largest rivers, demanding that federal regulators recognize circumstances have changed since the relicensing process started more than a decade ago.
New Energy Capital Partners filed a petition this week with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission arguing that Alcoa closed the smelter where nearly 1,000 people once worked after a 2006 deadline to compete for the license passed. Alcoa said in 2010 its smelter along the Yadkin River powered by the four dams would close for good, though aluminum production shut down years earlier. Since then, Alcoa has sold the electricity produced on the wholesale market and kept any profits.
Former Govs. Mike Easley and Beverly Perdue resisted Alcoa's quest for a new operating license of up to 50 years. Perdue's administration said the licensing battle was about the need to control a key water source for one of the country's largest and fastest-growing states and the chance to attract companies to one of North Carolina's job-scarce regions by offering low-cost electricity. New Gov. Pat McCrory hasn't taken a stand on the issue.
Failure by FERC to recognize the changed circumstances would violate federal law, since rivers are deemed public resources and their use for hydroelectric power must consider the public benefits, New Energy Capital's filing said.
If an Alcoa subsidiary, Alcoa Power Generating Inc., is granted a new operating license, Alcoa would be poised to sell it for a huge price tag, the filing said. The company last year sold its four dams on the Little Tennessee and Cheoah rivers in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina for about $600 million.
Alcoa received a new 40-year license for the Tapoco dams project in 2005, shut down production at the nearby smelter in Alcoa, Tennessee, in 2009, and last year announced the smelter's permanent closing.
"As it stands, APGI appears to be on the verge of converting a license that should be used for the public interest into an asset to be sold at the expense of the public interest," the investment firm's filing said. "In other words, APGI appears to be seeking profit primarily through acquiring a new, long-term delegation of federal power to control a large public water resource, then quickly flipping it to the marketplace."
New Energy Capital suggested a scenario in which it paid Alcoa for dams, electric transmission lines and other infrastructure investments as required by federal law, operated the dams and sold the electricity for a limited time, and eventually turned over ownership and control to North Carolina.
Alcoa declined through a spokesman to respond to the investment firm's forecast that the Yadkin dams likely would be sold once a federal license is issued. Alcoa said it doesn't expect the challenge by New Energy Capital to slow its path to license renewal.
"The public record has been effectively closed for five years and the deadline to file a competing application passed nearly seven years ago," relicensing manager E. Ray Barham said in a statement. "We continue to move forward with the relicensing process and are currently completing one of the final steps in that process."
New Energy Capital has invested about $250 million in solar-panel arrays and plants that produce ethanol, biodiesel and landfill methane gas around the country in the past eight years, said M. Curtis Whittaker, an attorney for the company. The company invested $12 million in 2011 in Asheville-based FLS Energy Inc., which makes and installs solar systems that produce hot water and electricity at companies and colleges.
New Energy Capital has never sought to contest a federal hydropower license, in part because it's very rare to see circumstances like those in North Carolina in which an unregulated dam operator is simply selling the electricity produced, Whittaker said.
"We watched these assets for a long time. In the renewable energy world, especially in the hydro world, they're very prominent assets," he said. "We're in the business of making money, but we think we can make money with an outcome that's much different than what happened in Tapoco."
Emery Dalesio can be reached at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio