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Tenakee Springs opposes Sealaska and IPEC geothermal site selection

Project benefits Hoonah; Tenakee Springs seeks hydro generation project

Posted: May 7, 2011 - 11:26pm

Sealaska and the Inside Passage Electrical Cooper

tive are attempting studies in geothermal power in Tenakee Inlet, but others in Tenakee are not pleased at this prospect.

IPEC Chief Executive Officer and Sealaska board member Jodi Mitchell explained the project is to reduce Hoonah’s dependence on fossil fuels, stating that rates are up to six times the national average, with the average cost per kilowatt-hour at around 55 cents.

“IPEC’s rates necessarily follow the cost of fuel through the fuel surcharge, and most recently those rates have been on the increase along with fuel costs. The volatility in fuel price has made it next to impossible for businesses to operate, since they cannot know with any certainty what they will be paying for electricity. In fact, most recently there have been business shutdowns in Hoonah, especially restaurants, since electricity is one of their largest overhead costs,” she states in an email.

Sealaska Vice President Rick Harris said the Hoonah area can pay even more, sometimes 61-68 cents per kwh. He said comparatively, Juneau pays 9 cents per kwh.

“This community has no real hydro potential and this might potentially be their long-term energy supply,” he said, adding, “The goal for all of us is to get everybody off diesel.”

He said the grant application is for reconnaissance studies only, as a provision in the Sealaska Lands Bill prohibits developing the site for 10 years but does allow for investigating it.

The potential geothermal site at Pegmatite Mountain, known as SE-3, is about 18 miles from Hoonah and 30 or more miles from Tenakee Springs. Mitchell said the area is estimated to have a 243 degrees Fahrenheit subsurface with recorded temperatures of 176 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface, making it one of if not the hottest known geothermal sites in the state.

IPEC has recently applied for an Alaska Renewable Energy Fund grant for the project. Sealaska’s role is to aid IPEC in the grant application in order to tap funds that IPEC is not eligible for. Sealaska legislation also allows it to select the land.

“I think that by us in a position of owning the property, it speeds the ability for permitting and getting testing done and bringing this forward quicker,” said Harris.

This is where the ideas collide, as the City of Tenakee Springs doesn’t want Sealaska to have the site.

“We oppose the selection and development in that Pegmatite Mountain area because it’s impractical for Tenakee and we’re already attempting to get our own hydro,” said Councilwoman Joan McBeen. “And it’s in a very sensitive environmental area and right in the middle of a roadless area and has a lot of wildlife.”

Environmental concerns play a large part in Tenakee Springs’ opposition. McBeen said there is worry of disruption to the watershed and wildlife as well as increased road construction and boat traffic.

McBeen also said the Council was not consulted on the proposed project before the grant application.

Sealaska and IPEC state the purpose is not to damage the land but to keep conservation in mind while aiding renewable energy needs. As to the potential impact for the roadless or conservation issues, Mitchell wrote: “This is a question we all must answer: What is better — do we continue to burn diesel for electric generation, or do we tap other known viable renewable sources for power? The project at current loads would displace about 349,000 gallons of diesel consumption per year for Hoonah alone.”

Tenakee Springs’ issue is not with just Sealaska owning the land, but with anyone owning it. The city feels it should stay public. “We don’t feel anyone should get it,” said Mayor Don Pegues.

“As a private landowner, we’re in a position to develop the site more efficiently and more effectively than can occur on the National Forest,” Harris said.

The city also objects that the proposed project would aid Hoonah but not Tenakee Springs due to the distance and absence of transmission lines to the site.

Harris defends the site, saying, “The simplest description is the project site is the same: everyone recognizes it as a source of geothermal energy.”

He said the geothermal project is designed to benefit Hoonah and it’s too expensive to connect Tenakee Springs to the grid. He said private ownership of the potential site does not hinder other energy project potential in the region and that any grants or permits Tenakee Springs obtains for other energy projects would still be valid.

“It is my hope that we can all come together on this project for the better of our communities. There is a huge disparity in power costs between the larger communities in Southeast Alaska, and the smaller rural, primarily Native, communities. There are definite “haves” and “have nots” in our region, and I’d personally like to see more equality in costs of living. It’s a big part of my job to help my people,” Mitchell wrote.

Tenakee Springs recently passed a resolution opposing the conveyance of the Pegmatite Mountain site to Sealaska. Harris said Sealaska is a strong advocate for renewable energy, which is a reason for the push for geothermal testing. He said the company has developed two hydro sites on Prince of Wales Island and another is under construction.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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