Hydro power camp wraps up with Snettisham tour

Water and electricity do mix at H2O Power Camp

Posted: Tuesday, June 23, 2009

SNETTISHAM - About 45 kids, their parents and various hangers-on got to see the remote mountainside hydropower plant that supplies 80 percent of Juneau's electricity as part of a hydropower-themed science camp on Saturday.

Molly Box/ H2o Power Camp
Molly Box/ H2o Power Camp

The Juneau Economic Development Council's weeklong H2O Power Camp wrapped up with a trip to AEL&P's Snettisham Hydroelectric Project. Scott Willis, the utility's vice president and top engineer, personally gave the kids and many parents that tagged along a tour few have access to.

Except for the occasional boater or float plane pilot who request tours, visitors are rare, Willis said.

The plant lies up a body of water that maps and charts inconsistently refer to as Port Snettisham or Speel Arm. Willis calls it "the second left" off Stephens Passage, about 40 miles Southeast of Juneau by sea.

The plant is built into a mountainside where the area's 250 to 300 inches of annual snow wouldn't impede construction. The main tunnel inside is dark and about 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide. It seems like the type of thing leading to a supervillain or superspy's hideout, several kids quickly note.

"James Bond!" several kids yelped from the mouth of the tunnel.

Beyond a door at the end of the tunnel and into a much bigger cavern hewn out of solid rock, Willis spreads his arms out and raises his voice over the loud hum of the equipment: "Welcome to Snettisham! Not many people get to see this. ... It's like the Bat Cave."

Dale Bontrager, a dad tagging along with his daughter Cora on the tour, had an iPhone app that measured the noise inside. It peaked at 104 decibels in the main rooms; he didn't get a reading in the more claustrophobic turbine room where ear protection is required.

At a stop in the generator room, 11-year-old Quincy Gregg's eyes wandered to the panels of buttons and whatsits cordoned off with yellow caution tape.

"So we can't go back there?" he asked.

"No, it's too tempting," Willis replied.

Along the way, Willis quizzed the campers on some of the vocabulary and concepts they'd learned earlier in the week: Turbines, penstocks, reservoirs, the relationship between elevation and hydropower, etc.

The trip to Snettisham wasn't all look, don't touch. While Willis led small groups through the plant, the kids waiting their turn tested their own miniature hydroelectric generators they had built earlier in the week in a shallow creek near the boat landing. A kit supplied a small turbine that lit up an attached LED when spun. Paper plates, plastic spoons, popsicle sticks, Styrofoam, soda cans, lots of duct tape and their imaginations provided the rest of the design.

The kids experimented with a voltmeter to find the best spots in the stream, moved rocks around to manipulate the flow and one boy tried laying his wheel horizontally. Another boy waded in waist deep, eliciting jovial laughter from camp director Molly Box, a physical education and health teacher at Floyd Dryden Middle School. At the end of the day, 19 of the 20 wheels worked.

"There's some science going on," Willis said.

Most of Juneau's electricity comes from Snettisham, as long as the transmission lines that run 43 miles over rugged terrain into town are intact. On the ride over, avalanche gashes from 2008 and this past winter were visible running from the mountaintops to sea, cutting beneath the path of the transmission lines. The vegetation and soil are still scraped clean to the exposed rock beneath.

"I just hope they don't happen more often," Willis said.

The camp cost $125 and was subsidized by a grant the Juneau Economic Development Council received through its Springboard program from the Department of Defense. The grant is aimed at fostering interest in science, technology, engineering and math, said Mary Hakala, education coordinator for JEDC. This camp was new this year, and is one of several the council puts on.

"On the bigger scale, we need a scientifically literate populace to compete in the global market. ... And you know, water and kids in the summer is a good fit," Hakala said.

When organizers held a brainstorming session for the science camp, garbage was another leading theme under consideration. The camp may be back next summer with a new theme, Hakala said.

Earlier in the week, the kids rafted down the Mendenhall River, hiked up to AEL&P's Salmon Creek Dam and hiked the Flume trail to see some generators powered by Gold Creek that are nearly 100 years old.

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