Ketchikan residents are going to be paying for this cold, dry winter.

Ketchikan Public Utilities Electric Division started supplementing the community’s hydroelectric power with more-expensive diesel about a week ago. With no rain or warmer temperatures expected anytime soon, KPU officials expect to continue running those generators into the foreseeable future.

The City of Ketchikan's holiday light display came down early this year because of low lake levels and lack of hydroelectric power. (Photo by Leila Kheiry)

The City of Ketchikan’s holiday light display came down early this year because of low lake levels and lack of hydroelectric power. (Photo by Leila Kheiry)

The past few winters in Ketchikan have been mild and kinda soggy. So, the lakes stayed full, and hydroelectric power flowed.

This winter? Not so much. So, KPU has fired up its backup generators

“We started last week, just before the New Year’s break for four days,” said KPU Electric Division Manager Andy Donato.

There were some partial days on diesel, then the utility stayed on hydro through the New Year’s holiday weekend, “and temperatures were low and we sucked down a lot of water, and we resumed diesel generation Tuesday.”

This weather is a little unusual. Ketchikan doesn’t usually get long stretches of truly cold weather. It’s not that cold, compared with other parts of Alaska, said Donato,” but, it’s cold enough that it freezes up the hillsides, the precipitation is in the frozen format, we get no inflow in the lakes, our heat loads go up and the lakes start drafting really, really fast. So, to mitigate that, we have to supplement with diesel generation.”

So, is this a normal winter issue to deal with? Or something to worry about?

“A little bit of both,” Donato said. “We’re an electrical utility, so we’re always concerned. Our responsibility is to keep the lights on, regardless of the weather. Here I am looking at a stretch of weather where there’s no relief in sight. I don’t know how long this is going to last. We’re just very fortunate to have the diesel generation that we have and the facilities and the personnel to operate and more importantly maintain them.”

Donato said it looks like KPU will be on diesel for a while, and with cold temperatures News Tileexpected to continue, the demand for electricity will be high – lots of people running their heaters to stay warm.

Sometimes, when demand is high in Ketchikan, KPU can take a little excess hydropower generated by the Tyee Lake facility near Petersburg. But, it’s been cold and dry up there, too, so there isn’t any excess hydro to take.

Donato stressed that Ketchikan has plenty of diesel to take care of the community’s electrical needs, but one casualty will be the city’s holiday lights.

“It didn’t make sense that, here we are running diesel and sometime around 3:30-4:00, the holiday lights come on with the street lights, so yesterday we made the decision to unplug and/or pull them down,” he said.

With the utility burning diesel, KPU customers will see a diesel surcharge on their electric bills. Oil prices are low now, so it’s not as expensive as it could be, but diesel still costs about twice as much as hydro.

And for those wondering about Ketchikan’s drinking water supply: Donato said there isn’t a shortage at Ketchikan Lakes, but KPU has cut down electric generation there to the legal minimum in order to maintain those lake levels.