City hopes to turn rain into energy

Planners see bright future in renewable hydroelectric power

Posted: Monday, February 26, 2007

City and power planners hope Juneau's rain and snow will someday be worth their weight in oil.

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Alaska Electric Light & Power Co. says engineers are on schedule with a hydroelectric project that could increase the area's energy supply 25 percent before the end of the decade.

The company plans to preview the city's renewable energy outlook for the Committee of the Whole tonight at 6 p.m. in the Assembly Chambers. That outlook is brighter because of a $50 million Dorothy Lake hydroelectric project near Taku Inlet, where construction began last May.

"The expectation is that the community's electric energy needs will continue to grow gradually," said Gayle Wood, a spokeswoman for AEL&P.

The Dorothy Lake project, in the first of two phases, will help Juneau meet its energy needs as the community grows and will add a major asset to AEL&P's hydroelectric mix, Wood said.

"Since we are at the point where we no longer have energy surplus available, this will give us time before we need to start phase two of Dorothy Lake," Wood said.

No timetable has been set for phase two of the project, but phase one should be on line in 2009, she said.

Rain and snowmelt that feeds Dorothy Lake and smaller lakes in the watershed above Taku Inlet will soon be driving turbines and feeding power to the city, if all goes according to plan.

"Water comes from the bottom of the lake from high elevation to the tide elevation through a tunnel and then through a penstock," or conduit to the generating system, Wood said.

"It's a very interesting project and difficult to construct because it's a remote project," she said. "It just creates all sorts of logistical issues."

Nearly 80 percent of the city's electric energy presently comes from the Snettisham Hydroelectric Project, about 28 air miles south of Juneau. However, local energy needs have increased since it was built in the mid-1960s.

The Dorothy Lake project could increase energy capacity by more than 25 percent, depending on the annual precipitation, Wood said.

"Lake Dorothy will be tapped so it will just be a large amount of energy production," she said. "This project basically allows the community to grow into the full capacity of the Dorothy Lake in two phases."

The power company foresees that construction of the project will result in a rate increase for AEL&P customers. But rate increases are coming in any case, and Wood said they should be lower with the new power source than without it - especially since long-term petroleum prices are expected to continue to climb.

"It appears that most energy experts expect the price of oil to increase more than what our historical change in electric rates have been, even considering Dorothy Lake in the mix," Wood said.

Higher costs for heating fuel are pinching several city institutions, including the school district, which uses electricity and oil for heating, said Craig Duncan, the city's director of finance.

"We know when the cost of fuel goes up, there is a huge cost to the city," Duncan said.

Wood predicted that more people would be turning from oil to electricity for heating as oil prices rise.

"I think most people believe the day of $2 for home heating oil is somewhere in the past," she said.

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