SITKA - Southeast Alaska leaders pitched new roads and hydroelectric power projects as priorities for the region on the third day of their economic summit.
State officials also tipped off the Southeast Conference audience on fundamental changes in store for the state's ferry system. The Marine Transportation Advisory Board is focused on "providing more service for less cost" throughout the region, said Dave Kensinger, a board member.
Kensinger said the advisory board is reviewing many potential changes, such as revisions to the ferry schedule, which he compared to "a bowl of Jell-O."
Alaska Marine Highway System Deputy Commissioner Tom Briggs said the ferry system, which is facing an $18 million deficit, will consider changing rates, a two-year ferry schedule and a 24-hour-per-day reservation system.
The Southeast Conference, composed of city and state leaders and business organizations, has tackled economic issues from timber to tourism during four days of meetings.
Wednesday's speakers discussing hydroelectric power and roads spoke of a need for expansion.
"We have a lot of water here to work with," said Bob Grimm of Alaska Power & Telephone, which provides power to 20 to 30 small Alaska communities.
Last month, members of the Southeast Conference formed a cooperative for utilities participating in the Southeast Intertie Project, an electricity grid being developed for the region's isolated communities. The multi-million-dollar project is billed as a way to stabilize and reduce electricity rates for diesel fuel-dependent communities. The new Kwaan Transmission Cooperative would be supplied largely by hydropower generation.
Several speakers at Wednesday's meeting said they believe hydropower in Southeast Alaska could eventually be supplied to Canada and the Lower 48.
"We absolutely have to connect to the British Columbia power grid," said Robin Taylor, a former legislator and current Department of Transportation special assistant working on Southeast Alaska regional transportation projects.
Taylor said that none of Southeast Alaska's hydroelectric projects will develop "with any speed" if they don't gain access to an Outside market, such as Canada or California, which could buy their power.
So far, Juneau-to-Hoonah intertie construction is underway and the Kake-to-Petersburg intertie is in the feasibility planning stage, officials said. The latter project would require a 52-mile connection. Some other projects under consideration have not yet been evaluated for cost.
The Regulatory Commission of Alaska plans to introduce new rules soon that would allow small hydroelectric projects to be permitted without having to go through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's complex licensing process.
"It cuts down the time and expense of licensing," said Jim Strandberg, who sits on the regulatory commission and gave a speech to the Southeast Conference on Wednesday. He clarified that he was speaking his own opinion, and not the commission's as a whole.
Projects sized at 5 megawatts or less could go through a more streamlined state process but would still have to meet federal requirements, Strandberg said. Representatives for at least six hydropower projects in Southeast Alaska pitched their projects to the Southeast Conference audience of more than 200 on Wednesday.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.