Will California's energy crisis affect Juneau?

Local provider says problems possible, but Golden State's woes aren't among them

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2001

As Californians endure forced blackouts in the midst of that state's energy crisis, Juneau residents while away the kilowatt hours outside the reach of the West Coast's power problems.

Although some western governors have looked to California's plight with alarm, the shortage will not affect Juneau's power system, which is isolated from the grid that supplies electricity to consumers in the Lower 48, said David Stone, spokesman for Alaska Electric Light & Power, Juneau's privately owned utility.

However, the company faces other challenges in its quest to keep Juneau flush with power. Locals have more to fear from wayward birds, toppled trees and drought than a power crunch thousands of miles away.

What if the rain stopped falling?

Juneau relies on four hydro plants for electricity but draws most of its power from only one. The Snettisham Hydroelectric Project, built in 1973, supplies 80 to 85 percent of the power used here. Although the state owns Snettisham, it's maintained and operated by AEL&P, which sells electricity to nearly every household and business in Juneau.

Snettisham works this way: 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 housing 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, noting Juneau consumed 302 million kilowatt hours in 2000. An average household uses about 10,090 kilowatt hours a year, he said.

The utility also draws power from three smaller hydro plants to avoid draining Snettisham's lakes. Salmon Creek Dam, Annex Creek Hydro Project and Gold Creek Hydro Plant combined can produce about 58 million kilowatt hours annually.

Rainfall and snowmelt, more than anything else, determine how much hydro energy Juneau will have in a given year. If the hydro plants ran out of water, Juneau still would have power because AEL&P can produce electricity with backup diesel generators. Diesel power, however, costs consumers two to three times more, so the company tries to avoid it, Stone said.

In the 1980s, the utility had to use its diesel generators around the clock in several winters during a hydropower shortage. Back then, Snettisham included only the Long Lake facility, and the shortage ended in 1990 when the Crater Lake addition came online, Stone said.

But by the mid 1990s, a hydropower shortage loomed again. In 1996, AEL&P had to fire up its diesel generators in winter after a particularly dry year, and the company was predicting that by 2001, its customers would be consuming all hydropower available.


The utility launched a public relations campaign urging people to use less electricity, and the tactic apparently paid off. Although the number of people using electricity has gone up in recent years, fewer residents are heating their homes with electric power, opting instead for Monitor or Toyo stoves - highly efficient space heaters that use oil. More than 3,600 residential customers classified as all-electric consumers used on average 40 percent less electricity last year than in 1985, said Stone, noting AEL&P has a total of 12,610 residential customers plus 1,475 commercial and 432 governmental accounts.

"Some people have done away with electric heat because it's more expensive than oil," Stone said.

As a result, demand has stabilized. These days Juneau has a slight surplus of hydropower in winter and usually a sizable excess in summer, Stone said. However, the potential for a hydropower shortage persists. The company currently switches to diesel power for one to two weeks annually for scheduled maintenance and power outages. But if demand in Juneau grows, consumers could be forced more frequently onto costly diesel power as water reserves draw down in winter, said Stone, adding the company is concerned Juneau could reach that point in two to three years.

In response, the utility is moving ahead with a proposal to build a new hydro facility at Lake Dorothy near Taku Inlet. AEL&P last week submitted a license application and a draft environmental assessment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Stone said crews could break ground by 2003 if the project is approved and deemed feasible. One way to make the project attractive to financial backers is to line up additional customers in advance. As a result, AEL&P is pushing a proposal to supply electricity to Hoonah, Stone said.

Meanwhile, the utility plans to sell its summer surplus power to cruise ships.

"During summer we don't have a way to store all that water the good lord gives us," said Stone. "We have excess power in the summer."

Starting this season, Princess Cruises will pay AEL&P between $250,000 and $300,000 annually to plug in to Juneau's hydropower. The money will go into the utility's Power Cost Adjustment, a surcharge that all customers pay to cover fuel costs when AEL&P has to use diesel generators. The Princess fees will lower the surcharge for all the other customers, Stone said. The power to the ships is interruptible, meaning it can be shut off if AEL&P has a shortage elsewhere or has to switch to diesel.

Stone noted the prospect of depleting Juneau's hydroelectric power in a season is different from California's problem, which is called peaking. California has power but not enough to go around during peak hours when people demand more electricity than the utilities can supply. In response, California has blacked-out power to some neighborhoods during peak hours.

"Right now we don't have, and have not had, a peaking problem. This has never been a problem for us," said Stone.

If a peaking problem were imminent here, AEL&P has a response plan. The company has control of more than 2,000 hot water heaters and numerous other heating systems in some Juneau buildings, including several schools, the Goldbelt Building, the Federal Building and the Augustus Brown Swimming Pool, said Stone. He said AEL&P can switch those systems from electric to oil by remote control to avoid a peaking problem.

The weakest link

The weakest link in Juneau's electrical system is its power lines: 44 miles of transmission lines from Snettisham to a Thane substation and 150 miles of distribution lines in Juneau. Toppled trees, equipment snafus and critters routinely interrupt power, sometimes forcing AEL&P to fire up its costly diesel generators.

"Mother Nature makes it tough on us," Stone said.

AEL&P attributes 36 percent of the outages to equipment failure, 22 percent to weather and 1 percent to animals. The utility does not know for sure what causes the other 41 percent.

"That largely falls into animals - that's our guess," said Peter Bibb, assistant transmission distribution engineer. "But we don't have any direct evidence."

Birds can land on the power lines and not get hurt, but if they touch the pole or anything grounded, it could mean lights out for Juneau and for the bird. The company has installed perches to lure birds away from the wires and has laid some lines underground in areas with large numbers of eagles, including Mayflower Island near Sandy Beach in Douglas, said Bibb, adding the utility also has upgraded some equipment.

The number of outages has declined from eight customer hours annually in years 1990-94, to 4.5 hours in years 1995-99, to 4.2 hours in 2000, said AEL&P's Stone.

"We are trending downward, which shows reliability is going up," he said.

The utility could bury all the lines and protect them from some of the elements. But that wouldn't shield them from burrowing rodents, Bibb said.

"We've had underground cables where squirrels dug in," he said.

Also such an undertaking would be costly - not only to bury the lines but to fix them when something goes wrong, he said.

"Power lines get very expensive when you have to dig the road up," Bibb said. "An overhead power line is visible, you can repair it. If there's something wrong with it you can see it."

Stone said it took crews several days to fix an underground cable that failed last month in the Mendenhall Valley. Luckily for residents, the failure happened when the ground was thawed, he said.

"If the ground was frozen, it would have been real difficult," Stone said. "That's one of the drawbacks to underground power."

Kathy Dye may be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.

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