My Turn: Trading salmon for kilowatts is bad energy policy for alaskans

Like many Alaskans concerned about energy, I read the Oct. 3 commentary on the proposed Susitna dam by Alaska Energy Authority’s Executive Director Sarah Fisher-Goad with great interest. I’m glad to see the most expensive power generation project in Alaska’s history getting attention in Juneau. While some see this as a Railbelt issue, I see it as part of a bigger threat to energy security and wild salmon in our state.

Unlike Ms. Fisher-Goad, I do not see the proposed dam as an opportunity for Alaska to “strike a balance between the need for power and environmental concerns.” It is just the opposite. With this dam, the State Administration and Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) are asking Alaskans to choose between electricity and our wild resources – between salmon or lights. In a state with abundant renewable resources and rich fish and game habitat, this is a false choice for Alaskans and a dead-end energy strategy for Alaska.

Ms. Fisher-Goad touts Alaska as having “some of the most ambitious renewable energy goals in the nation…to derive 50 percent of our power from renewable and alternative energy by 2025.” But, given her years as Alaska’s representative to the Clean Energy States Alliance, she must know that targeting “large scale hydroelectric as the means to achieve this goal” puts Alaska at the back of the pack relative to other states. Renewable electricity standards across the nation exclude large hydropower because of its destructive impact on watersheds and fisheries and the huge expense these impacts heap on future generations. As in Southeast Alaska, hydropower can be sustainable, with established standards based on size, operation and technology to abate the negative impacts of dams. But the proposed Susitna dam is the antithesis of sustainable hydro: it meets none of these standards and leaves Alaska as a laggard, not a leader, when it comes to renewable energy development.

AEA’s unprecedented investment in “fifty-eight multi-year environmental studies” with “more than 385 private sector industry experts” boosts our economy through a big government subsidy, but the hundreds of millions of dollars slated for studying the Susitna will not mitigate against an outcome foretold by decades of condemning evidence – big dams collapse native fisheries and the working communities that rely on them, and then costs untold millions to eventually mitigate or remove.

Throughout Alaska, all energy options (renewable and non-renewable) should be evaluated to determine which have the most benefit at the lowest cost and with the lowest negative impact to a community or region. In many cases, hydropower may be best. But this is not the case with the proposed Susitna dam. The over $5 billion cost is only the beginning if you include the cost of potentially harming the most productive wild salmon runs in the region. And harming salmon isn’t cheap. The Bonneville Power Authority spent $650 million on fish and wildlife mitigation in 2011 in the Columbia-Snake River basin. No mitigation costs are included in the state’s Susitna dam price tag.

The opportunity costs to Alaska make this bad deal even worse. By promoting one huge dam to achieve our 50 percent renewables target, the State and AEA are squandering the long-term economic opportunity that a renewable energy goal offers all of Alaska, especially rural and coastal communities outside the Railbelt with the most urgent needs for jobs and affordable energy. Our abundant natural resources can provide sustainable energy without jeopardizing the fishing, subsistence, and recreational opportunities that make Alaska great. Unfortunately, our state’s decision makers are missing this opportunity by insisting on a mega-dam that uses antiquated technology and threatens other resources. Other states are spending millions to tear these things down.

With lip service to Alaska’s renewable energy goal, we have started down a long, risky and incredibly expensive road toward potentially damming the Susitna River. The 95 million dollars already spent in 2013 only scratches the surface of the long-term, devastating costs and lost opportunities. Alaska needs to be smarter about investing in our promising energy potential; we can develop a skilled workforce and reliable energy sources, while also protecting the resources we have in the bank -- our wild salmon and rivers that support them.

Doug Smith is a long-time Alaskan who spends winters in Talkeetna and summers in Southeast Alaska.

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