Energy conference raises hype for hydropower

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

While the Alaska Legislature’s energy debates have been mostly focused on oil and gas, hydropower advocates gathered at Centennial Hall Thursday to try to raise the profile of the less exciting industry.

MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire
MICHAEL PENN / Juneau Empire

The National Hydropower Association’s Jeff Leahey told the representatives of industries, cities and tribes that the nation has unrecognized and untapped hydroelectric potential.

“There was this myth out there that hydropower was all tapped out,” he said.

Among those attending the conference, sponsored by the Alaska-Canada Energy Coalition, were mayors of Angoon, Kake and Wrangell, along with Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau and Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau.

Leahey told them that there were just over 600 megawatts of power projects in Southeast now being reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. That’s well more than the region needs, even if its currently diesel-powered communities are all converted to hydro. The surplus, he said, could either be exported or used to develop energy-intensive industries locally.

That’s the goal of the ACE Coalition, which wants to develop a transmission line from Wrangell to a new Northwest British Columbia power line to connect up to the B.C. electrical grid.

“Southeast Alaska is beautiful, but it is also a place of future wealth, said Gordon Loverin, co-chair the Northwest Transmission Line Coalition which is advocating for the new power line and wants to see new Alaska power in it.

“When I hear stories about communities paying extremely high prices for what we in southern. B.C. take for granted, I scratch my head,” said Loverin, who is part Tlingit with family ties to the Taku’s Atlin area.

“I believe there’s a better way to deliver affordable electricity to residents,” he said.

An intertie to the B.C. grid would enable new power projects in Alaska to be developed because they could sell their surplus power, he said.

One of the impediments to exporting Alaska’s power is that hydroelectricity is not officially considered “renewable,” Leahey said.

That’s for political reasons, he said, but the industry is now realizing that it must take advantage of its environmental benefits and not just its cost advantages.

“For a long time, to be honest, the hydropower industry didn’t focus on green energy,” he said.

Some interests in the Lower 48 didn’t want Oregon, Washington and Idaho, with their huge hydroelectric capability, to get credit for being renewable. Also, hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River System kill salmon, limiting support for considering them officially renewable.

In Southeast Alaska, however, power is obtained by tapping into high mountain lakes well above fishery resources and enabling them to provide power without harming salmon runs.

“Some of the things you guys are doing up here were just unknown,” Leahey said.

“I had environmentalists calling me up and saying “what’s a lake tap,’” he said.

He said he believed that they were reluctant to support something they didn’t understand and opposed it fearing it might be in someway harmful. They didn’t realize, he said, that that might mean a community was going to instead have to burn diesel for power.

“We believe that hydropower is a renewable, and should be treated as such,” he said.

A group called the Electrification Coalition took another angle to win support.

Sam Ori said the green power argument was fine, but that the most crucial reason for developing hydropower was to improve the nation’s energy security.

“I’m talking about energy security as national security,” he said.

The U.S. doesn’t have enough oil to meet its own demand, and spending to import huge amounts of oil is weakening the country, said Ori, the group’s policy director.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or

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