Aerial view of Rich's Pond and Lake Mellen on Prince of Wales Island, part of the area in the Reynolds Creek hydro project.

Aerial view of Rich’s Pond and Lake Mellen on Prince of Wales Island, part of the area in the Híilangaay hydro project.

Hydaburg is going hydro. After more than a decade of planning, the Prince of Wales town has secured a loan that will enable them to build a 5-megawatt hydroelectric facility averaging an approximate 19.3 million kilowatts annually.  We sent a reporter to Hydaburg to find out more:

After years of planning, paperwork, and agreements, Hydaburg has acquired the largest loan the Alaska Energy Authority has ever given for a rural hydroelectric project.

“This is monumental – because they put us through so many hoops.”

This is Lisa Lang. She the executive director of the Xaadas Kil Kuyaas Foundation (or Precious Haida Words Foundation), teaches for the SEARHC (pronounced “search”) Traditional Food Foundation, is a chair person at the Haida Corporation and is a local Hydaburg artist.

She says this hydro project will mean cheaper energy and new construction jobs to help boost the local economy. Lang says it’s not just about money, though, but also about the environment.

“We don’t want to run on diesel, and so this project fits into that we want to be 100% renewable energy.”

There’s still work to be done on the loan, as certain agreements need to be finalized, but Lang says the big part is over. It took more than a decade to get the $20 million AEA loan, and the project still needed about $9 million more. For this, the town was able to secure $1.34 million from federal grants, $4 million from state grants and more than $3.5 million from the Haida Corporation.

Lang says getting the relatively small project in the works was a pain.

“We have so much potential in Southeast, but if you knew the hoops you have to go through you might not ever even begin a project because it’s really overwhelming.”

Alaska Energy Authority Director of Energy Policy and Outreach Gene Therriault says securing the loan took a while because AEA had some specific concerns. One fear was that paying off construction costs might make Hydaburg’s initial power rates too high, and that might actually hurt the local economy. Therriault says they are now fairly convinced that this won’t be the case, but there is still a possibility.

“It’s a little bit of a leap of faith any time when you’re counting on something that is as uncertain as economic growth going forward.”

Once the hydro facility is established, though, Therriault says it will pay off.

“It is a very long-term, multigenerational piece of infrastructure that, if built appropriately and the business plan structured appropriately, it will be generating power 50 years from now, 100 years from now, possibly 150 years from now. It’s just that that initial capital requirement is a pretty high hurdle to clear.”

Courtesy of AP&T.

Courtesy of AP&T.

Lang says another big obstacle the Hydaburg hydro project faced was meeting the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission standards.

“FERC is the federal regulatory agency, and because it’s a jurisdictional question, we’re a small hydro and we were required to go through the same regulatory hoops as a large hydro, and that’s what stops a lot of projects in Southeast Alaska. It adds an extra million dollars onto the cost of your project.”

FERC Spokesperson Celeste Miller says that hydro facilities small and large are treated the same, because size is not proportional to potential resource problems, like stream erosion and fish habitat destruction.

“So you can have a project that is small, but perhaps it has a lot of resource issues. You could have small hydro projects that have very few resource issues, and in those cases, the process will move a little bit quicker.”

Lang disagrees, saying that communities behind small, local projects care about their land and water because it’s their way of life, and don’t need extra regulation. Lang recently went to the National Hydro Conference in Anchorage to ask that small hydro facilities be given more freedom.

“We care about fish and water…but we can’t afford to reduce the cost of energy if we have to pay all these costs up ahead.”

Miller says she hasn’t heard of any proposed changes to federal regulation at this point, but that decision would be up to Congress.

Miller says even with federal regulations to work through, application numbers for hydro facilities continue to grow, especially in Alaska.

Lang says after paperwork for the loan is finalized with the Alaska Energy Corporation, they can begin construction, though probably not much will get done before winter this year.

The Alaska Power and Telephone Company will build the hydro dam and will be its co-owner alongside Haida Corporation.

The hydro facility’s name recently changed from Reynold’s Creek to Híilangaay Hydro. Lang says this new name is important for two reasons: The first is because it’s a Haida name. The second is because of the little boy it was named after.  Híilangaay Christian Robert Young was born without a heartbeat and not breathing. His body went without oxygen for a full 15 minutes before doctors got to him.

“The parents were told that if he does live, if he survives when we take the breathing tube out of him, he’ll be severely brain damaged. So prepare yourselves. If he lives. He’s not supposed to live.”

Little Híilangaay’s body was then cooled for three days to restart his system. After six hours of warming, they found that he came back just fine, with only minor difficulties swallowing.

“That’s it, and he’s fat and healthy and beautiful… this baby was a miracle. He’s a true miracle. And if this project ever gets built, it’ll be a true miracle.”