A decision by top Canadian leaders to build a high-voltage transmission line into northwest British Columbia is being praised by Southeast Alaska hydropower proponents as a key step in developing the long-sought electrical intertie between Alaska and the Canadian province.
Canadian Prime Minister Brian Harper announced last week that the federal government in Ottawa would help the provincial government and other entities with financing for the 206-mile line.
Ernie Christian, vice-mayor of Wrangell who has been involved in promoting power development and the Southeast intertie, said the Canadian announcement may provide the support the project needs.
"This may be the critical catalyst for the whole Southeast grid," Christian said.
The problem Southeast communities have with developing their huge hydroelectric potential is limited demand.
Alaska Electric Light and Power recently developed the first phase of its Lake Dorothy Project, producing 15 megawatts. The project could have used the same amount of water to produce 30 megawatts, but the utility couldn't afford the additional expense without a demand for the power it would produce.
Christian said if there was an intertie connecting Southeast communities they could sell each other surplus power to finance development.
Even then, however, the lightly populated region couldn't use everything it could produce and would likely need to sell the power elsewhere.
Exporting the power to the West Coast Electric Grid through British Columbia could open the way for much larger, more efficient projects, he said.
"If we have a market, all the communities can develop their potential," he said.
The extension of the power line up the Highway 37 corridor from Terrace, BC, up to Dease Lake will shift communities there from expensive diesel to renewable hydropower, and make electric power available for several proposed mines in the area, Harper said.
He also said it "could advance a potential connection between southeast Alaska and the North American transmission grid via British Columbia."
Harper pledged $130 million for the estimated $404 million project, as part of the government of Canada's Green Infrastructure Fund. The amounts are in Canadian dollars.
Juneau hydro development advocate Duff Mitchell called Harper's support for the project a "game changer" for completion of the Southeast intertie, which is being built in small segments throughout Southeast.
AEL&P executives credit one part of that, the transmission line between Juneau and the Greens Creek Mine on Admiralty Island, with making it possible to develop Lake Dorothy.
Having the Canadian line go so far into northwestern British Columbia means that the AK-BC intertie will have far less distance to travel, Mitchell said.
"It puts us within 60 miles of the connection," Mitchell said, making the intertie viable.
Harper's announcement should allay any concerns about Canadian interest in the intertie, he said.
Mitchell works for Cascade Creek, LLC, a hydropower development firm with projects mostly in southern Southeast.
He's also working with Juneau Hydropower, LLC, which recently won Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval to begin studying a 30-megawatt hydro project on Sweetheart Lake on the South Side of Port Snettisham, where Juneau's big hydroelectric plant is located.
That project would provide substantially more power that Juneau foresees a need for, but with an intertie available the city could export it elsewhere.
Mitchell cautioned it was very early in the process.
"There is a long process to go through just to see if it is feasible," he said. If they were able to get a FERC license for the project, then they'd have to find a buyer for the power in order for it to be constructed.
Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 523-2250 or email@example.com.