Electrical intertie inching along

New energy plan is expected in December

Posted: Friday, November 14, 2008

Piecemeal progress toward a Southeast electrical intertie is coming along, and some say this is the year to push for big funding.

"We don't have the luxury of waiting," said Robert Venables, energy coordinator for Southeast Conference, which has been working for 10 years on the intertie.

Venables presented the Intertie's progress at this week's energy-focused Alaska Native Summit.

The intertie, of course, isn't really one big intertie. It's many pieces of transmission line that are slowly being linked together as money comes in one grant at a time.

Large and small communities can benefit, said Scott Willis, spokesman for Alaska Electric Light & Power Co., Juneau's utility.

"Having things interconnected makes remote projects feasible to provide energy for towns that need it," he said. "And it provides a market for large chunks of energy."

The need is becoming more dire. For two days, Native Summit participants have been talking about hard times and outmigration from rural communities such as Kake, Angoon and Hoonah, where diesel-powered electricity costs about 67 cents a kilowatt-hour.

At the moment, plans are proceeding using a 1997 regional energy plan, authorized with more than $300 million in funding by Congress.

But construction and fuel prices, and communities, have changed since then. New priorities for projects may emerge; the state is updating the Southeast plan now. The 1997 plan is still the bible for now, though.

"Incrementally, progress is being made," Venables said.

• A 66-mile transmission line from Petersburg to Kake now has funding to continue design and permitting for the next two years.

• A line being built between the Swan Lake and Tyee Lake hydro projects will tie together Ketchikan, Wrangell, and Petersburg. That's scheduled to be done next fall.

• A line from Ketchikan to supply Metlakatla now has grant funding.

• Prince of Wales communities at the southern end of the island are now linked. But hooking up the northern cities of Naukati and Coffman Cove will require more funding, perhaps in the next state budget cycle.

• Hoonah is to be linked to hydro-powered Juneau. A line was built to Greens Creek, along the way, but project funding ran out.

Not on the 1997 plan is Cascade Creek LLC's project: The private company says it can get online a Thomas Bay hydroelectric plant near Petersburg by 2011.

On the same scale as Juneau's Snettisham plant, Thomas Bay could provide a lot of energy. The catch? It's more than the local communities can use. For Thomas Bay to pencil out, it requires a transmission line to British Columbia, according to Duff Mitchell, business development director of Cascade Creek.

Mitchell says the AK-BC line, as it's known, will be good for Alaska energy consumers if it can tie into the envisioned integrated Southeast grid. In the opposite direction, the link will provide energy security to Alaska.

By hooking to the North American grid, he'll be able to sell hydro to outside utilities that are under new mandates to sell renewable-source energy. That in turn could spur economic development in Southeast.

"I see the Alaska-B.C. line as the railroad to the West," he said.

Peter Naoroz, general manager of Kootznoowoo Inc., Angoon's tribal corporation, is on board with that idea.

"There's 25 times more power than we can use," he said. "We've got to start that discourse. The country is starved for green energy."

Venables, though, was not convinced the Thomas Bay project would benefit Alaskans now, because the communities closest to it have all the power they need. The dearth at the moment is transmission lines.

"I'm not sure how that one fits into the Southeast Intertie," he said.

He sees that plan as "one of many projects that could be developed to complement that plan or expand that plan, to Canada and on beyond."

The Alaska Energy Authority is scheduled to release a draft of its new energy plan for Southeast in December.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or kate.golden@juneauempire.com.

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