Susitna Dam project continues Alaska's march toward self-sustaining power

Posted: Sunday, November 28, 2010

It has been a beautiful fall in Juneau, give or take a few absurdly windy days. The snow base is steadily building up in the mountains, but we've been spared brutal shoveling duty down near sea level. Having already had a few power outages, maybe we're done with those for a while. When the power goes out it forces me to reflect on how I tend to take abundant, affordable energy for granted even though I live in a fairly remote place in Alaska. Really, all Alaskans live remotely in the sense that we're not connected to the national energy grid.

Even Anchorage, Alaska's metropolis, can no longer take its energy supply for granted, so I'm excited with this week's news that the Susitna Dam Hydroelectric Project is back on the table as a viable and economically sensible means to address energy needs in Southcentral Alaska. It will also help encourage sustainable energy projects across the Last Frontier.

The Susitna Dam concept has been mulled over at least since World War II, when the federal government took note of the tremendous energy potential of the waterways which ultimately flow down into Cook Inlet. After significant investment in planning, the state put a concrete proposal before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, in the early 1980s, just before the Alaskan economy tanked due to historically low oil prices, killing the project. The older plan was larger in scale, and much costlier than what's being looked at today.

Two years ago the Legislature directed the Alaska Energy Authority, or AEA, to study and plan to bring the current proposal forward. It involves building a dam at Watana, an uninhabited area upriver on the Susitna River, creating a reservoir 39 miles long and two miles wide. The water flowing from this reservoir would power turbines that could provide half of the region's energy needs. AEA has estimated the cost at about $5 billion with a 11-year timetable to completion. With state investment, the resultant energy costs to consumers would be very similar to what they are today with dwindling natural gas supplying the electricity. Of course, when public money is invested in a project, steps must be taken to ensure the public's long-term enjoyment of the economic benefits.

While there are still, amazingly, some people who think they know for certain climate change is a myth, or worse, a deliberate ruse being foisted upon the world by Dr. Evil or the Trilateral Commission, common sense embraces the desirability of reducing reliance on finite energy sources that are expensive and at times difficult to acquire. This is above and beyond the possible beneficial effect alternative energy uses may have in other ways. Juneau has long enjoyed relatively inexpensive renewable hydroelectric energy, directly improving our quality of life. Affordable energy means more economic opportunity, and jobs make for prosperous families.

The Susitna Dam is by no means a done deal. The Legislature will have to consider how much money to invest to move this project to the next phase this coming session, but so far there have been encouraging words from key legislative leaders and Gov. Sean Parnell, all of which bodes well for the residents of Southcentral and their energy needs. As with all public works projects in Alaska, AEA will have to prove to FERC and other federal agencies there will be no unacceptable environmental problems created by building and generating power at Watana. The Chakachamna project across Cook Inlet from Anchorage is sometimes mentioned a more environmentally-sensible alternative to the Susitna Dam, but it could not produce nearly as much power. When you build something of the size and scale of the Susitna Dam, you should build it large enough to provide capacity for a really long time.

Closer to Juneau, there are exciting developments in the energy-generation field. Since our local electric utility brought Lake Dorothy online, Juneau has been less susceptible to the catastrophic price spikes that occurred during the Snettisham avalanches of the past few winters. On the southern tip of Admiralty Island, Angoon is looking to get off expensive, polluting diesel power generation and to transition to hydroelectric. Alaska Native village corporation Kootznoowoo is considering building a dam on Thayer Creek about six miles north of town, and running lines under Kootznoowoo Inlet to power the community. This project would dramatically reduce the costs of doing business and make daily life more affordable. Because Angoon and all areas involved in this proposal are with the Tongass National Forest, the Forest Service, instead of FERC, will be primarily responsible for ensuring that all environmental laws are followed.

Renewable energy is such a good idea when the right project presents itself at the right time. Both up north on the Susitna River and at Thayer Creek over on Admiralty Island, great things are in store for Alaskans who pursue the eminently doable and worthwhile goals of investing in hydroelectric energy sources today to meet the needs of tomorrow.

• Brown is an attorney who lives in Juneau.

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