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Dam project draws attention to renewable goal

Posted: February 18, 2014 - 1:03am

JUNEAU — In 2010, the state adopted an energy policy that, among other things, set a goal of having 50 percent of Alaska’s electric generation come from renewable and alternative energy sources by 2025.

The likeliest way to reach the goal is widely believed to include a major project in south-central Alaska, the proposed Susitna-Watana hydro complex. But the project, which critics see as unnecessary with the state pursuing a natural gas pipeline, is far from assured.

Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, vented his frustration during a House Finance Committee hearing last week, saying the state should stop talking about the goal because he didn’t see a commitment to it from Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration. Stoltze later said his comments were more of a political challenge, borne of a desire to have a more open discussion on projects — to know, for example, what impact one project, like a gas line, could have on another, like Susitna.

“If we can’t juggle two things at once, let the public know,” he said.

Parnell spokeswoman Sharon Leighow said the state remains committed to the renewable-energy goal as demonstrated by investments in and ongoing work on the Susitna project and other hydro and wind projects across Alaska. Parnell included $10 million in next year’s budget for the project.

The governor said earlier this month that he had no basis to ask legislators for more money until the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA), which is behind the Susitna project, had made substantial progress toward or completed land-access agreements.

AEA spokeswoman Emily Ford said the authority is currently negotiating land-access permits and hoped to soon have a signed permit to conduct environmental field work.

The authority had sought $110 million to complete its initial study report and prepare its license application for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission during the upcoming fiscal year. It requested and received more time to file its report, which was initially due Feb. 3.

In recent years, the state has provided more than $170 million toward the project. With projections calling for slumping revenues and the state facing the prospect of using savings to get by, some lawmakers — like Stoltze’s House Finance co-chair, Alan Austerman — have called for taking a tough look at projects and deciding if they are the best places for continued investment.

House Speaker Mike Chenault told a news conference last month he believes that both Susitna and the gas line are needed to meet Alaska’s future energy requirements. He called the money being spent now lead-up money, going toward work that will help the state decide whether the projects are viable and worth pursuing.

Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, noted that the lead-up phase isn’t cheap. “But I don’t think that we want to advance the project without going through the due process, and that’s not an inexpensive process,” he said.

Critics of the project worry about the impact the dam could have on things like salmon and river levels and flow. They fear it could be vulnerable in an earthquake.

The project as proposed would be one of the tallest dams built in the U.S. in decades. Current plans call for a 735-foot dam built into the Susitna River Canyon and a reservoir that would stretch more than 40 miles. It is currently projected to cost $5.2 billion, though it is not yet clear how it might be financed.

Melis Coady, who was recently in Juneau with a group of Susitna opponents, said Susitna isn’t a good fit for the energy needs of Alaska, which in parts of the Railbelt include a need for more affordable heating options. Electricity, she said, doesn’t keep you warm. She worries the state backed itself into a corner with Susitna and the renewable-energy goal.

Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said he thinks Alaskans would love to get to the 50 percent goal, but he believes it would be extremely difficult without a project like Susitna. He said projects need to stand on their own and he still has questions about Susitna’s impact on fisheries.

“If the project doesn’t work out for whatever reason, we need to re-evaluate,” he said.

Rep. Charisse Millett, who helped craft the energy policy, said she believes the renewable goal is attainable with or without Susitna. Other projects on the books through the Renewable Energy Fund can help move the state closer to that goal, she said.

“Technology is moving faster and faster every day,” Millett said.

According to the 2013 Renewable Energy Atlas of Alaska, hydroelectric power supplies 20 percent of Alaska’s electricity in an average water year. Wind provides less than 1 percent.

The governor’s Office of Management and Budget has reported the state’s renewable-energy portfolio has grown steadily since 2008.

Millett, R-Anchorage, supports the state continuing to pursue both Susitna and a gas-line project, in case one falters. Natural gas, while not renewable, is still a good form of “clean” energy, she said.

The tone of discussion has changed since her first session in 2009, she said, moving from the state doing “absolutely nothing” for energy to what the state is doing and the available options.

The issue now is money, she said.

“But we’re still all working toward the same goal: sustainable, cost-efficient energy for the whole state,” Millett said.

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