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Alaska plans to pursue major $4.5 billion dam project; would be highest built in US in decades

Posted: July 25, 2011 - 9:18pm  |  Updated: July 25, 2011 - 9:21pm

JUNEAU — Alaska is moving forward with what would be the highest dam built in the United States in decades, a $4.5 billion project aimed at helping meet the energy needs of the state’s most populous region.

Gov. Sean Parnell told a news conference in Anchorage Monday that completion of the 700-foot-high Susitna River dam is scheduled for 2023. But major hurdles must be overcome first, including securing the necessary permits and financing. State support is expected to be vital to the project’s prospects.

Officials say the dam, which would be located about halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, would help meet Alaska’s goal of having half its electricity generated from renewable energy sources by 2025. Parnell said the project would generate about 2.6 million megawatt hours of electricity a year. It would have a reservoir 39 miles long and up to 2 miles wide.

A similar proposal was tabled in the mid-1980s as the cost of other sources of electricity remained relatively cheap. But Parnell said hydropower has the capacity to create jobs and new opportunities and open up the economy just as other major infrastructure projects of the past, and even the Internet more recently, have. And he said it’s time to commit to this project, which he sees as part of a larger state energy package that also includes oil and natural gas development.

The Alaska Energy Authority, which is overseeing the project, is planning to file this fall a notice of intent with federal regulators, essentially letting them know the state is ready to move ahead.

“It’s time for Alaska to make the needed investment in renewables that we have in abundance, more than any state in this nation,” Parnell said.

Richard Leo believes the project is unnecessary, in part given the recently announced, larger-than-believed natural gas reserves in Cook Inlet that could be tapped to meet electricity demands for Anchorage and much of south-central Alaska.

Leo, who is with the newly formed Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives, said the dam has the potential to be “destructive on a massive scale,” citing among other things possible impacts on salmon runs and caribou habitat.

He chalks up the pursuit of the dam to “megalomania,” saying it’s the kind of legacy project for which many politicians would like to take credit.

Parnell said the dam project does not render moot the pursuit of an in-state gas pipeline, saying abundant energy creates opportunities and “you can never have too much opportunity.” A recent report suggested such an in-state pipeline could cost in the range of $7.5 billion, and the state would be expected to cover much, if not all, of the construction cost.

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