Water power: State explains proposed hydro projects at public hearing

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Alaska Energy Authority held an informational open house in Kenai this week about potential large hydropower projects that could power the Railbelt in coming decades.

More than 40 people from various Peninsula communities showed up to the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska on Tuesday for the last of the authority's scheduled public presentations on the road system. Because the project is not yet going through the regulatory process, the meeting was not an official public hearing, just an information session.

A large hydro project is necessary to meet the state's goal of 50 percent renewable energy by 2025, said AEA's Jim Gill, an engineer who was involved in Susitna hydro studies when a larger project was on the table in the 1980s.

"That has an impact on evaluating which project goes forward," he said.

Scientists and other representatives of the authority talked about the Susitna/Watana dam that they're proposing, and the Chakachamna dam that was studied as an alternative.

Neither project is a new idea. Significant research on both projects was done in the 1980s, said fisheries scientist James Brady.

The Chakachamna project, near Lake Clark about 85 miles west of Anchorage, has been studied since the 1940s, Brady said. Gill said that project would provide about 16 percent of the energy that the authority thinks the state will need, for about $2.7 billion.

Gill said the Susitna project would provide about 47 percent of the state's projected needs, at a cost of about $3.9 to $4.9 billion. That project is near the the headwaters of the Susitna River, north of Devil's Canyon at a site called Watana.

Although the energy authority favors the Susitna project, nothing is certain.

"It's not a done deal," Gill said.

Brady, Gill and others working with the authority talked about the two projects and the reasons why the Susitna project is the option they are advancing.

The Chakachamna project is attractive because it is already a lake, Brady said. But it poses a larger threat to fish populations and would produce less energy, he said. The cost to produce that energy would also be higher, in part because of a tunnel that would be drilled through the mountains to direct water to the project. The wetlands in the Trading Bay Game Refuge also might be affected by the changed water flow, he said.

Although a larger project, the Susitna dam would have a lesser impact on the environment, Brady said.

"This is a much larger watershed," he said.

The project would be near the headwaters, and many of the impacts -- such as changed flow and water temperature -- would be mitigated by two tributaries that join the river downstream of the proposed dam. The location has another advantage -- the dam would be in an area where few salmon can reach due to whitewater downstream.

The reservoir would flood about 20,000 acres, most of which is moose habitat, said Nancy Tankersley. Tankersley was the meeting's facilitator, and a scientist involved with wildlife studies on the Susitna project in the 1980s. Unlike the dam considered back then, this one would not cover mineral licks needed by Dall Sheep because the proposal is for a smaller reservoir, she said.

It's too early to say just who would pay for the project, Gill said. One possibility is that the state and utilities will split the cost.

Gill said the hydro project could be built with room for expansion.

But Alaskans likely wouldn't have to make a decision on whether or not to expand the project for quite a while.

"That's for a future generation to consider," Gill said.

The next step is filing a notice of intent with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Commission spokesman Karsten Rodvik said two bills are in the legislature that would give the energy authority approval to move forward with that notice. But no one can say just yet when -- or if -- that will happen.

"We cannot predict what actions will be taken," he said.

If the authority files its notice of intent this year, the project could come online in 2022, he said. That allows for three and a half years of field studies, three years to do an Environmental Impact Statement and get a license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and four and a half years of construction.

Railbelt utilities will need to find ways to meet energy demands for the next decade, until the project comes online, Gill said.

On the Peninsula, Independent Light -- an addition to the Nikiski generation plant -- could be that bridge, said HEA's Joe Gallagher.

In a statement earlier this year, HEA Genera Manager Brad Janorschke said the project would be a short-term fix for the issues that make the hydro project attractive.

"Unfortunately, the rising cost of fuel is creating a difficult situation for HEA and other utilities that rely on natural gas to generate electricity," Janorschke said. "HEA is currently moving forward with plans to install a steam turbine at our Nikiski Generation Plant that will increase the electrical output of the existing facility by 45 percent without any additional fuel."

In the long-term, HEA wants to see the state pursue a large-scale renewable project like the dam, Gallagher said.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@peninsulaclarion.com.

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