Alaska Electric Light and Power Co. today began shutting off surplus electricity to some of its customers because of low water levels in the lakes that feed a major hydroelectric plant.
The power company made the decision late Monday to interrupt power to 131 residences and 15 commercial and government buildings, including three schools, beginning at 10 a.m. today, said AEL&P spokesman David Stone.
Princess Cruises also will not be able to plug into shore stations to power its ships while they're in port in May.
The interruption is scheduled to last at least until mid-May, Stone said.
Those affected by the interruption, Stone said, have dual heating systems - meaning that their buildings and homes can be heated by oil or electric power.
Juneau relies on four hydro plants for electricity but draws most of its power from only one. When AEL&P has a surplus of water, creating excess energy, building and home owners are allowed to buy the electricity and use it instead of oil. It is generally cheaper to use electric heat than oil heat, Stone said.
But with the cold weather and lack of rainfall Juneau has had in the past few months, Stone said, the water reserves are dangerously low.
"Our hydropower reserves are dropping at a dramatic rate," said Stone. "We've got plenty of snow pack. What we need, ironically, is warm weather and rain to bring up the levels at Crater Lake and Long Lake out at Snettisham."
The Snettisham Hydroelectric Project, built in 1973, supplies 80 percent to 85 percent of the power used in Juneau. The facility draws water from Long Lake and Crater Lake, about 30 miles southeast of Juneau. The water travels in tunnels to a nearby power plant that houses three generators, which produce electricity.
Snettisham can produce 325 million kilowatt hours in an average-water year - usually enough to meet the annual needs of all Juneau consumers, said Stone last year.
Stone said AEL&P interrupted power now in order to save the hydropower Juneau has left and the "un-interruptable" customers money in the long-run.
"If we get too low on hydropower we will have to switch to diesel power, which costs two times more than hydroelectricity," Stone said. "We did this in 1984 and it ended up costing customers 30 to 40 percent more on their electric bills."
The last time power was interrupted was in 1996, Stone said.
Until the water levels come back up, many interruptable power consumers said they are prepared to ride out the minor price increase in order to save electricity for everyone.
The spokesman for Princess Cruises in Juneau, Kirby Day, said its cruise ships can run by a generator powered by the ship's engines when in port for the month that shoreside power will not be available. Day said Princess plans to "plug-in" as soon as AEL&P has enough power.
Fred Wilson, maintenance coordinator for the Juneau School District, said the transition from electric heat to oil is smooth and was made Monday afternoon. He said except for an increase in price and slightly more maintenance involved with oil-powered boilers, there's no difference between the quality of the heat.
Melanie Plenda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.