Avalanche knocks out hydro power

Posted: Thursday, April 17, 2008

Juneau homeowners' and some renters' electricity rates will likely quintuple next month. The city's electric utility will resort to running on diesel as the result of an avalanche Wednesday morning that cut hydroelectric power to the area.

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Courtesy Of Mike Laudert / Alaska Electric Light & Power Co.
Courtesy Of Mike Laudert / Alaska Electric Light & Power Co.

"All of a sudden, we'll have rates that look like rural communities across the state," said Gayle Wood, director of consumer affairs at Juneau's power utility, Alaska Electric Light & Power Co.

The transmission line to Juneau from the Snettisham Power House, about 40 miles south of town, went down at 3:54 a.m., Wood said. The avalanche started three miles from the power house. It was 1.5 miles across.

AEL&P sent a helicopter out in the morning to check its seven transmission towers over the steep terrain. One of the tall metal structures was down completely and four were damaged. Bad weather prevented a complete assessment of the damage, though.

After the helicopter left, Wood said another avalanche took out additional towers.

"It's just a terrible place to have a transmission line," AEL&P General Manager Tim McLeod said. "Those are straight-up-and-down cliffs."

The Snettisham hydroelectric plant accounts for 85 to 90 percent of the power AEL&P supplies to Juneau.

Outages were limited to just the Thane area yesterday morning because the power load transferred to the diesel generators that were already running.

AEL&P plans to begin adjusting for the cost of power in about 15 days, Wood said.

This will be the biggest rate hike in AEL&P's 115-year history, according to McLeod.

The new rate will be right up there with the 54 cents per kilowatt-hour the Inside Passage Electric Cooperative currently charges in its rural service area of Angoon, Hoonah, Chilkat Valley, Kake and Klukwan.

Businesses and residents will share the added costs, possibly for several months.

Residential electricity will rise to at least 50 cents per kilowatt-hour or higher from a current average of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, Wood said. That number is not firm yet.

Alaska regulations allow utilities to pass on the cost of power to its consumers in what's known as a cost-of-power adjustment, or COPA. Utility companies must file COPA requests with the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. These do not require a public comment and are generally approved, said Grace Salazar at RCA.

Juneau's rates rose 14 percent last fall. Electricity demand increased at a time when water flow into the Snettisham lakes was less than normal, McLeod said. AEL&P has supplemented the hydro power with about 10 percent diesel since Dec. 10 last year.

Wood said the avalanche came just as AEL&P was planning to hike rates 2 cents a kilowatt-hour anyway for the summer, because the fall rate hike didn't totally cover the winter cost of diesel.

"This is an extremely bad time to need diesel fuel generation, given the costs," Wood said.

It will take about 100,000 gallons of fuel a day to carry the town on diesel, Wood estimated, with a possible cost of $375,000 to $400,000 a day just for the fuel.

"We receive absolutely no profit from this," Wood said.

Wood estimated workers could safely fly in to start repairing the line in two to three weeks. She also said hydro power wouldn't be restored for at least two to three months.

One tower was damaged in 2000, but otherwise the seven towers have been sound since they were built in the early 1970s.

The Snettisham line is inspected visually each year. Each tower is climbed and given a more thorough inspection once every 10 years, Wood said.

Wood said people should switch to other fuels when possible.

"Oil is the better deal now," she said.

Also, energy conservation will become mandatory for many.

Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho said he was working on instructions to city staff on how to use less energy and on tips for the city Web site to help individuals and businesses.

"It's a disaster," said Cathie Roemmich, Chief Executive Officer of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce. "This is when we need to pull together."

She was particularly worried about young people and small businesses, she said, who might not be able to handle their higher electric bills. But everyone should use less energy.

"The more you and I conserve, the less we all end up paying," she said Wednesday afternoon. "In fact, I'm going to turn the lights off right now."

• Contact reporter Kate Goldenat 523-2276 or e-mail kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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