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Alaska needs more hydroelectric projects

Posted: Sunday, February 20, 2011

This past week people gathered in Juneau at the invitation of the Alaska-Canada Energy Coalition to discuss hydroelectric power and its potential for Southeast Alaska and beyond. Hydroelectricity is power generated by the movement of water down from a lake, in a stream or the ocean, and is the most extensively used form of renewable energy in the world today. In the last century, hydroelectricity was not generally considered to be an environmentally responsible practice because of the havoc it wreaked on rivers and the fish who resided in them, especially in the Pacific Northwest. But the way in which hydroelectric facilities have historically been built and operated in Southeast Alaska is entirely different, drawing the power from high-up mountain lakes and thus avoiding undesirable consequences.

Here in Juneau we are fortunate to have an electrical supply that is primarily generated by large-scale, yet relatively closely-situated hydroelectric facilities. As a direct and proximate result, we enjoy some of the lowest energy costs in Alaska, and we don’t have to worry about a diminishing natural gas supply impeding our future energy well-being as our fellow Alaskans in the metropolitan areas of Southcentral are now doing. But other smaller communities in our own region have to burn finite and smog-producing diesel fuel to generate power for their homes and businesses. This is true across Alaska, and diesel is costly to a point that makes life too expensive to be sustainable for families and businesses alike.

The Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) is a state agency which does many good things: upgrading local energy systems, loaning money for power projects and bulk fuel purchases, and administering the Power Cost Equalization (PCE) program to get direct and crucial economic assistance to residents of rural Alaska and offset the staggering cost of energy in the bush. AEA’s main mission is to reduce the cost of energy in Alaska, which sounds daunting, but which is fortunately much more realistically attainable on the Last Frontier than in most other parts of our nation.

AEA’s Alternative Energy and Energy Efficiency program provides technical data about many different forms of renewable energy, including biomass, geothermal, solar, and wind. But it is hydroelectricity that has not only the allure of renewability for its own sake, but the internal economic soundness to make it the most logical choice.

Hydroelectricity provides about one-fifth of global energy supply, but almost 90 percent of all renewable energy. If we choose to pursue the hydroelectric potential of our region, we can in a fairly short amount of time not only supply all of Southeast’s energy needs, but become net exporters. There are numerous potential hydroelectric projects in the planning stages across Southeast, which together could generate far more electrical wattage than we’ll be needing locally for a long time.

Of course, simply weaning ourselves off of diesel regionally would be a clean and welcome step in its own right.

Our friends across the border in British Columbia are in the process of building a power-line that will end some 100 miles from the border with Alaska.

The Northwest Transmission Line is intended to reduce diesel usage within Canada and promote economic development in the region, but also offers great promise to Alaska.

As this project moves forward, we have the opportunity to link ourselves with the North American power grid, by building an intertie from Wrangell that connects with the Canadian electrical system.

This would allow some existing hydroelectric facilities to sell surplus power to Canada, and as we continue to connect the various communities of Southeast, more hydroelectric power could be exported, producing environmentally and financially pleasing outcomes. The economic benefits to Wrangell would be enormous and very welcome to that community’s economy, which has faced great challenges in the past 20 years.

As recent votes in Washington have shown, we are no longer in an era when we can expect federal monies to address as many of our needs in Alaska as in the past. It is a therefore a great thing that we have the ability and resources as Alaskans to finance the promising potential of hydroelectricity as we decide is best. It will take a lot of work to overcome the logistical hurdles inherent in connecting Southeast to the North American power-supply network, to say nothing of the federal regulatory requirements. Now is the time to work to create more hydroelectricity in Alaska to meet current needs, and also to make it possible to export this renewable resource in the future.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.



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