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Power supply essential for survival of Southeast

Posted: January 30, 2012 - 12:00am

Someone wants us dead.

Maybe not dead dead, but they want us gone — outta here. And they’re getting their way.

And by “us” I mean the people of Southeast Alaska. Outside of Juneau, industries are disappearing, people are moving, and the population is declining. Don’t be smug, Juneauites. Your capital isn’t far behind.

Students of history know that Alaska is littered with has-been places — “once thriving,” “once the biggest city,” “once the center of a bustling region,” etc. Places like Eagle, Cordova, Nome, McCarthy and others few have heard of. Only a few places, notably Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau (so far) have survived their booms to become quasi-stable places. All these places made the cut because of government dollars. The declines of others, notably Sitka and Ketchikan, have been slowed by government money, but the end seems inevitable.

At least it’s inevitable unless we do something.

That “something” we can do is developing our resources — our minerals, our timber, our fish and our power. Southeast has these in abundance, but someone, or more properly some people and groups (you know who you are) with money from outside don’t want this. They want us gone. And they’ll use money, guile, and lawsuits to get their way. They’ll try to convince us that we should support our own demise — the depopulation of Southeast Alaska.

This guile, this deception, this idea that we should support our own demise brings me to the Alaska Energy Authority’s Draft Southeast Alaska Integrated Resource Plan. The IRP looks at Southeast and sees declining population and business. It then projects the electric power needs for this declining region — what is and isn’t needed. Not surprisingly, they don’t see any needs. Nothing. If decline is inevitable, then just hunker down until you’re gone. Just run out the clock. Just die.

The IRP does spot one problem: where cheap hydropower is available, too many stingy consumers are switching from expensive oil to electricity for heating, stretching the capacity of existing generating facilities. The makeshift answer: pellet stoves. The government needs to force those too-expedient homeowners to put in messy, labor-intensive, expensive pellet stoves. Since there isn’t any pellet supply here and developing one would be problematic, we’ll import the pellets from Oregon like Sealaska does. I guess this is a good idea because it would be foolish to invest in hydro projects in a dying region.

Not every hydropower-rich place in the world takes such a blinkered view. Oil and gas-rich Norway with a population of 5 million gets 99 percent of its electricity from 850 hydro plants — and uses it for heating. But Norway has a national electric grid that connects all parts of the country and the European grid. Our planners’ IRP says similar connections here are too speculative and shouldn’t even be considered. (It does this by over-estimating the cost of transmission by an order of magnitude.) We start and finish at something that might as well be zero.

But we don’t want to be at zero. In order to reverse the decline, we need to develop resources. And the economics of development require reasonable power rates. One can’t make a go of a mill, mine, or fish plant without some reasonable cost of power. That power line that goes to the Greens Creek Mine means $1 million a month in savings — at least when Juneau’s stretched facilities can keep the juice flowing. Money like that can make or break a business. And we shouldn’t forget that the power itself is a resource. That is, it’s a resource if we have a way of sending it to market. The interties that the planners would kill do this.

So, Southeast, we are faced with grim prospect — our own state government is proposing a power plan that starts with the assumption that Southeast Alaska is doomed and then proceeds to say, in so many words, that the state should cut its losses and let us go down. But Southeast is part of this state and our government owes us more than a curt “good bye and good luck.” Come on people, wake up and tell the state we have a future here in Southeast.

• Twelker lives in Juneau.

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