Alaska editorial: Southern comfort: Could Cook Inlet gas provide more power again?

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

In all the hand-wringing about the cost of electricity in Fairbanks, it’s good to hear we might not need to start from scratch to begin solving this problem.

Many decades ago, state and local utility managers saw that Fairbanks could lower its costs by building a power line to connect to Southcentral Alaska’s gas-fired power plants. That line, dubbed the “Intertie,” has benefited Fairbanks immensely.

The Intertie is still there, as Bob Hufman, former general manager of Golden Valley Electric Association, noted in a column published Sunday. And it’s still working fine.

Unfortunately, Southcentral utilities, facing constraints on their gas supplies in recent years, have cut back on the amount of power they could ship north to Fairbanks, even as demand here grew. That has forced GVEA to burn more expensive oil at its generators in North Pole.

Now, however, gas supplies and storage capacity in the Cook Inlet area are looking up. As Hufman noted, a number of Southcentral utilities are planning major expansions of their gas-fired generating capacity. Golden Valley, he suggested, should offer to buy power from them. With such an offer in hand, the Southcentral utilities could build larger plants with the capacity to supply GVEA customers well into the future.

This isn’t a panacea, of course. GVEA should continue to pursue lower-cost power on a number of fronts. But it is a potential way to reduce our utility costs here that shouldn’t be overlooked.

We don’t need to reinvent the wheel to get started. If Cook Inlet gas storage and supply problems are indeed being solved, then an opportunity to continue this time-tested strategy exists.

Construction of the Susitna dam could render the use of gas-fired generation unnecessary, but, even if the state encounters no obstacles in its construction, that power is many years in the future. In the shorter term, start-up of the mothballed Healy coal plant also would reduce the need for gas-fired power and gas trucked from the North Slope to North Pole could put a dent in some of the costs.

Of course, a major gas pipeline from the North Slope also could solve our problem. GVEA could build its own gas-fired generators if that happened. Again, though, that might be many years off.

In the meantime, as Hufman said, “We do not have a gas line, but we do have a power line.” We should make sure it’s delivering as much power as we can buy.

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