By most accounts, $4 million is a lot of money, and anyone who complains about being given $4 million would be more than a little ungrateful. I am not ungrateful; however, considering some of the other ways the Legislature has decided to spend money this year, I can hardly believe the Senate Capital Budget includes only $4 million for Sitka’s Blue Lake hydropower expansion.
Aside from the much talked about oil tax restructuring, which should cost the state at least $6 billion in tax revenues over the next 6 years, the House has approved spending $250 million on prep-work for an in-state natural gas pipeline that may never get built. These and other fossil fuel friendly measures dwarf recent state investment in renewable energy.
Since 2008, the state’s Renewable Energy Fund has paid out over $100 million for renewable energy projects. This actually puts Alaska among the leaders nationwide in renewable energy investment, but the investment is not nearly enough. Sitka’s Blue Lake hydro expansion alone is expected to cost $145 million.
Sitka voters took a bold move when they approved the hydro expansion. They knew taxes would go up to fund the project, but it was the right thing to do environmentally and it would pay off economically over the long term as well. State funding for the project was always uncertain, but the community was optimistic. This year the city of Sitka submitted a state capital project request for $43 million, a reasonable amount that would still leave Sitka taxpayers to fund a significant portion of the project. It appears the city may be lucky to receive one-tenth of that amount.
Sitka should be looked at as a model for other communities in Alaska and around the country. It stepped up by its own initiative and decided to make a big investment in renewable energy. Sitka knows Alaska, with its eroding coastlines and thawing permafrost, is already feeling the effects of Climate Change on a larger scale than any other state, and this is good reason for Alaska and its communities to make renewable energy a top priority.
The Legislature doesn’t seem to grasp the importance of renewable energy, and it isn’t sending a very good message to other communities that may be exploring renewable energy options. It spends hundreds of millions on looking into what would ultimately be a $1 billion pipeline to supply natural gas to the Railbelt, while giving $4 million to a hydro project that is already underway.
Regardless of what the Legislature has done or may do in the future, I hope Alaskan communities will keep an eye on Sitka and how it’s handling its energy needs. I am optimistic the community will continue to seek renewable energy options and find ways to pay for them, and eventually maybe members of the Legislature will take note as well and make renewable energy a bit higher priority.
• Hackett has been a Sitka Resident for 40 years.