City faces likely increase in power cost after second snow slide in year

Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cost estimates were not yet available Monday for the damage done by an avalanche that tore down a Snettisham Hydroelectric Project transmission tower, but a snowslide last year destroyed towers that cost Alaska Electric Light and Power $3.27 million to rebuild.

Last month the state-owned Alaska Energy Authority, which owns the 78,210-kilowatt hydro project, lent AEL&P that amount to repair last spring's damage. A larger cost came from the price of diesel fuel used to power AEL&P's backup generators.

A study to determine how to prevent future avalanche damage is underway.

Possible options include hardening the towers with concrete diverters to make them avalanche proof, bypassing particularly avalanche-prone areas with underwater cables, and mitigation, said Jim Hemsath, deputy director of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority, which also manages the state's energy authority.

The engineering analysis is not finished, but officials with the authority and the utility had hoped to use avalanche mitigation measures such as triggering small avalanches to prevent buildup of a massive snowpack that could threaten the towers.

A helicopter dropped explosives Sunday to remove some snow threat, but was unable to get to the area where Monday's avalanche hit, Hemsath said.

"They did a bombing yesterday, but apparently did not take down the slab that ultimately did release," he said.

While the state owns Snettisham and its transmission lines, AEL&P is responsible for them, authority officials said.

"It is AEL&P's responsibility to repair the line, and it is AIDEA's responsibility to ensure the line is repaired," said Karsten Rodvik, spokesman for the authority.

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska typically allows such costs to be passed on to ratepayers.

AEL&P officials said they were unable to purchase insurance on the transmission lines, and had to bear the cost of replacement themselves. There is also no way to insure against the far larger cost, $9 million, of running the diesel generators last spring, they said.

Fuel prices, at the time over $4 a gallon, have likely dropped but AEL&P officials were in the process of getting up-to-date quotes Monday and did not have an estimate of the cost of running diesel generators.

Juneau Rep. Beth Kerttula said she called Michael Nizich, Gov. Sarah Palin's chief of staff, to let him know what the city was facing, but local officials had not yet requested any state help. After last year's avalanche the Palin administration declined a city request for a disaster declaration.

During last year's avalanche, conservation efforts spurred by huge power rate increases helped cut electrical usage by one-third. State officials say that since then, habit and equipment changes mean usage is still 8 percent to 20 percent below pre-avalanche levels.

As part of that conservation effort, the Empire reported daily power usage for the city during the crisis. An AEL&P official said the company hoped to resume that in Wednesday's paper.

Kerttula said the experience of last year will allow city and state officials to respond to this year's disaster much more rapidly.

Her concern now, she said, was that those in need, especially the elderly, stay safe and contact the legislative delegation or city if they need help.

"If you are getting on in years your body needs that warmth," she said.

One bright spot for the future is that AEL&P's Lake Dorothy Hydroelectric Project is nearing completion. Transmission lines from Lake Dorothy to Juneau don't cross the dangerous slide area, and could provide Juneau with additional insurance against disaster in future years.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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For complete coverage of the Snettisham avalanches including tips on how to conserve energy, video reactions and links to local resources go online to juneauempire.com/powerline.



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