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Snettisham line to be repaired quicker, at lower cost

Some criticize utility for not preventing second disaster

Posted: Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Juneau's electric utility is now estimating that electric customers will pay rates next month that are doubled, not tripled, to cover the cost of running the city on diesel.

Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. also said in a statement that repairs to the Snettisham line will be cheaper and quicker than estimated last week.

That's under $1 million instead of $1.7 million, and a repaired line by the last week of January, rather than mid-February.

A stretch of good weather helped, and engineers also found that the structures didn't need to be as extensively modified as they first thought.

An avalanche Jan. 12 damaged the power transmission line from the Snettisham Hydroelectric Project, 40 miles south of town. The city is running on backup diesel generators until AEL&P restores the line. The company plans to bypass a downed tower in the avalanche zone, instead of rebuilding it with spare parts.

Higher electric bills are expected to last one month. The utility plans to ask regulators for an emergency cost of power adjustment after Feb. 1, so that it has an accurate assessment of how much diesel the city is using.

If the decent weather continues, the company estimates residential rates will rise to 20 to 25 cents per kilowatt-hour. That's the 9.6-cent base rate plus a cost-of-power adjustment of 10 to 15 cents per kilowatt-hour.

After avalanches took down the same section of line last year, residents paid two months of high bills to cover more expensive diesel: one at 52 cents per kilowatt-hour, and the second at 38 cents.

Daily electricity has dropped since the avalanche. It's unknown how much of that is active conservation, and how much is attributable to recently warmer weather.

"Fifty-three degrees and a little sunshine on a weekend make a huge difference," wrote spokesman Scott Willis, noting a 22 percent drop in usage this weekend from Jan. 12. "That will come back up as the weather cools, but any daily decrease is a good thing."

Distrust of electric company persists

Some residents are wondering whether AEL&P could have prevented this second Snettisham disaster.

Bill Burk and Cheryl Moralez criticized the utility in last spring's disaster, too. They were in the core of the Juneau People's Power Project, a group that collected signatures to ask for a vote requiring more oversight of the privately held company.

They're organizing again. They have scheduled a meeting in the downtown Juneau library on Thursday at 5:30 p.m.

Burk and Moralez both criticized the company for not moving quickly enough on a study of ways to protect the Snettisham line from avalanches in the long term.

"Why should we turn down our heat and freeze because of their mistake?" asked Burk.

Moralez also questioned whether the billing had been transparent and fair, and whether it would be this time.

"I think there needs to be citizen oversight in what's going on," she said.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.



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