Alaska editorial: Cheap hydroelectricity is the key to reducing flight from the villages

This editorial first appeared in the Kodiak Daily Mirror:

While Alaska struggles with fuel prices and many people complain, some places are trying to do something about it.

The city of Old Harbor is pressing ahead with a new hydroelectric power plant, betting that cheap hydroelectricity will make village life affordable.

Old Harbor is on the right track, but it shouldn’t be the only one of Kodiak’s rural communities doing it.

The city of Kodiak has shown how hydroelectric power cuts electrical prices, ensuring that power costs, at least, are one thing Kodiakans don’t have to worry about in a worldwide recession.

Cheap electricity is an incentive to industry, something Old Harbor realizes. It has improved its dock and is beginning an expansion of its airport runway. A project to bring high-speed Internet and cellphone service to the city will take place this summer.

When cheap electricity becomes available, fish processing may soon follow. With fish processing comes jobs, and jobs mean a chance to reverse the flight of rural residents to urban areas, a trend that has accelerated in recent years.

Hydroelectricity doesn’t come cheap. Permitting a new hydroelectric plant, even one without a dam, can cost millions of dollars. Half a million dollars has been spent so far on Old Harbor’s project.

We encourage the state of Alaska to act on small-scale hydroelectric plants just as with the enormous Susitna Hydroelectric Project in Southcentral.

Unfortunately, we cannot always expect the state to act quickly. In Ouzinkie, a wooden dam that supplies both water and power for Spruce Island is near failure and needs help. The state has supplied some assistance, but villages in the Interior and elsewhere also need help. Alaska’s attention is split.

Therefore, we believe the best agent to act for small-scale hydroelectricity in Kodiak is private industry.

Among private industry in Kodiak, only regional and local Native corporations have the financial resources and interest to make small-scale hydroelectric power work. These projects would benefit Native shareholders directly, and any investment in a power plant would be repaid to the company through fees charged to ratepayers.

It would not be a quick return, but it would be a steady one.

If Kodiakans are serious about deterring village flight, we need to encourage rural industry and security. Cheaper electricity is a good place to start.

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