Earlier this month, Ketchikan Public Utilities Electric Division turned on its backup diesel generators due to dry, cold weather. At that time, KPU officials predicted it would be a long diesel run.
But, as Southeast Alaska residents know, the weather here likes to keep folks guessing. With a weather shift, KPU is now back on hydro.
This was KPU Electric Division Manager Andy Donato on Jan. 5th: “Here I am looking at a stretch of weather with no relief in sight. I don’t know how long this is going to last.”
Relief arrived almost exactly a week later with an unexpected warm spell that melted some of the snowpack and pelted the community with about six inches of rain.
“It’s fantastic. If you’re in the hydro business.”
That’s Donato now. He’s one of a handful of people in Ketchikan who genuinely welcomes rain. But everyone here will benefit from the downpour, because the rain and warmer temperatures mean the expensive diesel generators are off.
When KPU burns diesel, customers pay a surcharge. This year, diesel costs about twice as much as hydro.
Donato said KPU used diesel off and on for about two weeks, to stretch out the hydro capacity. But then, “as soon as the forecast showed that we were going to get some heavy precipitation and temperatures were going to come up in the 40s, we gave up the diesel runs.”
That forecast was correct. Donato said all the lake levels rose by up to five feet, including Swan Lake – Ketchikan’s primary power source. That is the result of a combination of rain and snowmelt.
And with that, Ketchikan’s hydropower supply is in good shape, at least for the next couple of weeks.
“It’s possible that we may never have to come back to diesel, but… it’s too early to speculate,” he said. “(It’s) still January. We haven’t gone through February yet, and unfortunately the forecasts aren’t that good a month out.”
Because in Southeast Alaska, the only truly predictable thing about the weather is its unpredictability.
Well, that and rain. And wind. Which leads us to topic #2: Power outages.
There were three power outages in Ketchikan during the warm, rainy, windy weekend. Donato said only the first was weather-related, though. It happened very early on Sunday morning – about 1:30 a.m. – when 70-plus mph gusts blew some trees onto power and telecommunications lines.
Crews went out into the storm and got the power back on Sunday morning. But then, there were two more outages on Monday.
“But they were unrelated to those wind events,” Donato said. “The two outages were due to SEAPA’s Tyee Unit 2 tripping.”
SEAPA is the Southeast Alaska Power Agency, which owns Swan Lake and Tyee Lake hydroelectric facilities, and the intertie that connects them. With the intertie, power can be shared back and forth, but sometimes that leads to power outages in Ketchikan when there’s a problem out at Tyee, near Wrangell and Petersburg; and vice versa.
Donato said KPU responded quickly and fired up those diesel generators to get power back to the community within about 20 minutes for each of the outages, and then worked to bring hydro generation back online.
He said KPU crews up at Swan Lake also coordinated with SEAPA to send more power from Swan over the intertie – luckily there was excess from all the rain.
“We’re trying to keep their generation down so if the unit trips off, the delta of that generation is small and so the effects will be small,” he said. “So, we’re sending about five megawatts north through the intertie from Swan Lake.”
And that way, crews further north have the leeway to figure out the problem at Tyee.
Donato said it appeared to be an equipment-related issue.