Hemlock trees are dying on the Skagway mountainside. It would not be news if this was just another tree blight, but it's not. It is an air quality issue with ramifications for all cruise ships' ports of call. The tree deaths can be traced to cruise ship emissions caused by the use of diesel generators while the ships are in port.
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The cruise industry has shown a willingness to work on environmental issues. I offer a solution that has very positive ramifications for us beyond the stated problem. If we provide enough hydro generated electricity at the dock, these ships can shut down their diesel power systems while in port. Unfortunately we can not currently provide that service.
Just one ship can use more power than Haines and Skagway combined. That is a lot of diesel fumes. The newer Holland America and Princess Line ships are built to plug in to shore power. Southeast Alaska has the hydropower potential to meet the ships' needs. It is, however, not feasible to build the hydro electric facilities unless there is a year-round market for the power. The answer is an electrical intertie with British Columbia and the North American grid.
But how do we pay for such an ambitious project as the Southeast Intertie? I suggest with the cruise ship head tax. The state of Alaska expects to receive about $50 million a year from the new head tax initiative. By law this money has to go directly to the benefit of the cruise ships. The NW Cruise Ship Association has made known that they do not think a "wish list" (e.g. medical facilities, boat harbors, restrooms and sidewalk improvements) presented by affected communities should qualify as expenditures.
Cruise ships are highly self-contained and do not need a lot. The ability to plug into shore power and the availability of sufficient power to meet their needs are two of the few things they do need. Meeting that need with an electrical intertie and dock side infrastructure just happens to be one of the only ways to satisfy the law and also benefit the citizens of Alaska.
First an intertie with British Columbia will be necessary to handle our seasonal excess. Second, we must find a catalyst for the intertie. I propose the catalyst be the head tax and that it becomes part of the broader comprehensive energy policy designed to bring cheap and reliable power to all of Southeast.
A plan for an intertie connecting present ports of call and from the B.C. grid to Skagway and then connecting with the Yukon grid, could bring the North American power grid to the Interior Alaska border for the first time. By bringing this inter-tie into the Interior Alaska border with a promise of bringing it into western Alaska, we can count on a brighter, cleaner future from California to Barrow. Remember, the cruise ship industry also calls on ports in Southcentral Alaska.
There is a narrow window of opportunity for us to do the right thing. Southeast is not the only electrical route to the Lower 48, but presently the best. The head tax can fund the intertie between or to ports of call and would be a major economic development for all Alaska, which we sorely need.
There is a lot of infighting with the major utility companies in Southeast. The issue of the intertie and the facilities should be separated. The state should own the intertie and charge for its use and let the energy providers deal with the dams, power stations, etc.
The lack of leadership can change with the attention of Gov. Sarah Palin. Contact her and let's make this "windfall tax" be a true windfall for the entire state of Alaska and put the tax money into this major project that will benefit all Alaskans and give the cruise ships what they need.
Mavis Irene Henricksen is a resident of Skagway.