Hydro power could return by early June

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2008

Now that the transmission towers are all replaced or repaired, Juneau's electric utility has shortened by a month its estimate of when the Snettisham power line will be back online.

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Kate Golden / Juneau Empire
Kate Golden / Juneau Empire

"It's a big milestone," said Scott Willis, spokesman for Alaska Electric Light & Power Co.

He said that if all goes well, he thinks the city's hydroelectric power can be restored by June 8.

"It would be nice to see it done," said AEL&P journeyman Bill Price on Friday at Snettisham, as a new tower went up. He said he had just received his own shocking $598 electric bill for the month.

The city has been powered on diesel since April 16, when avalanches knocked out the transmission line that supplies most of the city's cheap hydroelectric power. Diesel prices are at an all-time high and rising, and city electric rates rose sharply to cover the extra cost. Until now, AEL&P was estimating the line would be repaired by mid-to-late July and running the city on diesel would cost about $25 million.

"This will result in much less diesel fuel use and much lower rates than we had expected for June," Willis said.

Electric bills are high solely because of the cost of diesel, not because of the repairs. AEL&P will charge customers for the repairs, estimated at between $6 million and $7 million, over the next 20 years or so.

AEL&P is still running the numbers, but Willis said the June emergency cost of power adjustment - now 42 cents tacked onto the usual 11-cent average rate - could be around 20 cents, rather than the roughly 30 cents he was expecting before.

Finishing quickly has become even more important as diesel prices have steadily risen, from $3.80 after the avalanches to an average of $4.03 last week.

Willis waited to provide the June 8 estimate until Saturday, when all the towers were finally replaced or fixed without a hitch. Three were destroyed, and four were damaged in April. For weeks after the avalanches, the utility was uncertain of what repairs would be needed because snow still obscured some towers' foundations. The mid-July estimate also included contingencies for bad weather.

Now, much of the snow has melted, leaving the wreckage visible.

The slope is a bare rubble of downed trees and upturned earth, but the concrete tower foundations are intact. So far, repair work has progressed without any major hitches.

One tower was installed May 18. On Friday and Saturday, the other two towers were flown in and installed.

Rare clear, calm weather was a boon on Friday, the day the last two new towers were scheduled to be installed. A heavy-lift Boeing 234 Chinook helicopter and its crew from Portland, Ore.-based Columbia Helicopters arrived in the afternoon. The Chinook dwarfed the other helicopters and dominated the scene with its size and noise each time it came in for a new load.

Anthony McFadden said most of his fellow Chinook crew are ex-military who have known each other a long time. They do a lot of this kind of work and they coordinate with little chattering and zero drama, McFadden said during a spell of downtime on Friday.

"You don't even have to talk a lot of the time," he said.

Early Friday afternoon, a light-green chunk of mangled transmission tower still lay on the hillside, three miles from the power plant. The Chinook brought it back and set it beside the two new towers.

Then the helicopter hauled spindles of transmission wire out to the site one by one. Finally, it flew in a 12,000-pound self-supporting tower, the heaviest of the three types of towers on the Snettisham line. Work securing the structure continued late into the night.

Saturday morning, workers installed the last tower, a three-sectioned structure more logistically difficult to set properly.

Some avalanche-control work still is needed. But by the end of last week, the snowpack that remained had developed drainages which made it much more stable, according to an avalanche expert on site.

Unlike the rest of Juneau, the project site has been powered purely by the Snettisham hydroelectric plant.

In the next and final phase of the project, contractors will string the transmission line across the new towers.

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

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