Energy is an ongoing topic across the nation, including Alaska. In Southeast, a regional power agency is looking for new sources of electricity, and will consider proposals for any kind of power generation concept.
Southeast Alaska Power Agency officials gave some details about their call for power at a recent Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce lunch.
Southeast Alaska needs more power. Even those communities with multiple hydroelectric dams rely more and more on expensive backup diesel generators as the demand for power increases each year.
Part of the problem is reliability. Hydro power is plentiful when it rains – and it rains a lot in Southeast – but when there’s a dry spell like last October, lake levels drop. When those levels hit a certain point, operators have to power down the hydro generators, and start burning diesel.
To combat that growing problem, various Southeast communities are working on new hydro projects. The City of Ketchikan is moving forward with a new hydroelectric dam at Whitman Lake, and Sitka is starting work to raise its Blue Lake dam. Metlakatla is looking at a new hydro project, too, along with a possible intertie to Ketchikan, which would allow any extra power Metlakatla doesn’t need to flow into the small Southeast Alaska grid.
Right now, hydro and diesel are pretty much the only power sources for Southeast, and hydro will always be the largest piece of a regional power puzzle. But Southeast Alaska Power Agency is interested in options. In late January, the agency released a request for offers from pretty much anyone with a good idea.
SEAPA CEO Trey Acteson said, “Just to kind of throw a couple of things out, you still have wind out there. It could be a really efficient diesel plant. It could be biomass. It’s not just restricted to hydro.”
Acteson said part of the interest in optional power sources is timing.
“Hydro development takes a long time, and it’s very capital intensive,” he said. “Let’s look at Sitka right now. They’re looking at their new project there, and they anticipate that rates are going to go up almost 50 percent. So what we’re looking at is, we can bring in some smaller projects first that are less capital intenstive to fill the void, or the gap, as we forecast forward, and hopefully bring in a larger project down the road as well.”
One potential large project already is in the works. Charles Denny of Saxman invited Acteson to attend the next Saxman City Council meeting to talk about the $46 million Mahoney Lake hydroelectric project. Mahoney is a public-private partnership between Saxman, Cape Fox Corporation and Alaska Power and Telephone. As envisioned, it would result in a 9.6 megawatt lake tap.
SEAPA’s call for power forecasts a very conservative growth in electric needs for the region – only a half-percent per year. That estimate drew some criticism, but Acteson said the number can be adjusted.
An audience member asked about filling the power needs for potential new mines in the area. SEAPA board member Bob Sivertsen, who also is a Ketchikan City Council member, said the mines can’t be included in the estimate until they’re a reality. But, he said, it won’t be difficult to meet those needs. A power-sales structure already has proven effective elsewhere.
“I don’t think we have to look much further north than Juneau,” Sivertsen said. “Juneau (Alaska Light and Power), they have Greens Creek, and they run with an interruptible power sales agreement with them. So they have diesel capacity to run their facility when there’s a lack of hydro.”
A project that SEAPA most likely will work on first is increasing storage capacity at the existing Swan Lake dam.
“We think it’s the low-hanging fruit right now in the area, to raise the dam by six feet and put some … gates in, which the end result is a reservoir increase of about 15 feet,” Acteson said. “That increases the reservoir capacity by about 25 percent.”
Ketchikan has first dibs on all electricity generated at Swan Lake, just like Petersburg and Wrangell get Tyee Lake power first. If there is extra from either dam, it becomes available for the other communities.
SEAPA is run by a board made up of representatives from those three cities. The power agency owns the two dams and an intertie that connects them.
To see SEAPA’s request for proposals, go to www.seapahydro.org/