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Beyond timber: Hydroelectric project would potentially power 77,000 homes

Future of Southeast's natural resource industry is up against Forest Service's Roadless Rule

Posted: August 21, 2013 - 12:08am

There’s an old story of uncertain origin that Alaska Power and Telephone Company President Bob Grimm thinks applies to his company’s situation. Grimm tells the story like this:

“The Army Corps of Engineers operates a lot of dams on the Columbia River. Early on, there were some concerns about salmon when they put dams on that river. When they put the fish ladders in, they grabbed the first fish that came up one of those ladders,” Grimm said while laughing. “They stuffed that thing and put it on a plaque that said, ‘It never pays to be first.’”

It’s a cautionary tale to those who might venture into unknown territory that Grimm isn’t heeding.

“Somebody’s gotta go first,” Grimm said.

The Soule River Hydroelectric Project in Southeast Alaska could create enough energy to power 77,000 homes. The project, which is spearheaded by employee-owned AP&T, would establish the first electric transmission line crossing the Alaska-Canadian border.

“This would mean connecting Alaska to the grid,” Grimm said.

After seven years of red tape, AP&T recently applied for a Presidential permit to construct the 12-mile long line that would originate at the Soule River in the Portland Canal near Hyder and continue to the BC Hydro Stewart substation. Obtaining the Presidential permit and corresponding permits from the Canadian government are major steps toward making the transmission line a reality, Grimm said.

The exact route of the transmission line will depend on a number of factors, including what happens with the newest version of the U.S. Forest Service’s five-year plan for the Tongass National Forest. The current plan has restrictions on hydroelectricity development that hinder development, the biggest being the Forest Service’s Roadless Rule, Grimm said. The rule limits road construction in certain areas of public land. Critics say the rule restricts development of natural resources. Proponents say it protects the wilderness.

“We’re hoping that as a result of the comments on the five-year review that they recognize renewable resource development in the Tongass is necessary,” Grimm said.

The Roadless Rule was an issue Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski sought to address with Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell during a trip to the Tongass earlier this month. The trip was Tidwell’s first to the Tongass.

“This is an administration that has said, ‘We want to be more conscious of emissions and we want to be more conscious of moving to renewable fuels,’” Murkowski said during an Aug. 6 interview. “If you can’t build these renewable projects, like the one near Hyder, because of policies you have in place, like the Roadless Rule, how are you going to make this happen?”

Grimm said his company has been in discussions with the Forest Service, but that they haven’t been forthcoming with their approval of the project.

“They’re still locked into the old timber mentality. Now that they’re downsizing that portion of the forest, shouldn’t they be looking at the responsible management of our huge tidal, wind and hydro resources?” Grimm said. “The (Tongass) isn’t just for recreation and logging. There needs to be consideration for renewable resource development.”

While the energy from the project would be sold outside of Alaska, Grimm said the transaction would benefit Alaskans.

“We have lots of summertime hydro, but fall short in the winter and the spring,” Grimm said. “We could sell to somewhere warm that needs air conditioning and then they’d sell back to us in the winter.”

The project would create up to five jobs in Hyder-Stewart, the cross-national community closest to the BC Hydro Stewart substation, Grimm said.

About 15 years ago, the last of Southeast’s pulp mills closed as 50-year Tongass timber contracts with the Forest Service neared their end. Grimm said ventures like the Soule project could play an important role in Southeast’s economy post-timber.

“When they shut down the pulp mills, we were supposed to transfer to a new kind of resources. Well, that never happened. (Hydroelectricity development) could replace some of those jobs that were lost with the timber industry and bring back some of the economy,” Grimm said. “I think that’s there just a lack of resolution in the forest service as to what their policies are. They really haven’t inventoried the renewable resources that are available in the Tongass.”

The secretary of state will have to find that the project is in the nation’s best interest to grant the Presidential permit. It’s that permit — and a feasibility study — that the Forest Service is waiting for, Tongass Supervisor Forest Cole said.

Getting the project through the Forest Service’s permitting process is not a prime concern, Cole said. He said there are 32 energy-type developments in the Tongass and only one staff person to administer all of them.

“We’re focusing our energy on (projects for) communities that are dependent on hydro. Projects where the energy is going down south are less of a priority for us,” Cole said. “That’s the issue we deal with on a daily basis. Do we pick one for one community or do we pick one that might not help any communities here?”

• Contact reporter Jennifer Canfield at 523-2279 or at jennifer.n.canfield@juneauempire.com.

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