Stormy weather knocked out power to around 1,200 homes and businesses on the southern end of Revilla Island Monday afternoon. But despite recent heavy rains, Ketchikan’s utility officials say the community can still expect to pay higher electricity rates as the lakes feeding hydroelectric plants recover slowly.
Andy Donato is electric division manager of Ketchikan Public Utilities.
“So it was about two or three minutes after three o’clock when the fun started, so to speak, and a couple of trees slid down and landed on the power lines just uphill from the Coast Guard station,” Donato said.
Donato says the trees fell along South Tongass Highway. That knocked out a sub-transmission line connecting Ketchikan and Mountain Point on the south end of the island.
Crews were on the scene within minutes, Donato says, allowing KPU to restore power relatively quickly. The lights were back on about 90 minutes later.
Meanwhile, Monday’s heavy rains prompted the National Weather Service in Juneau to issue a flood advisory for Ward Lake. Edward Liske is a forecaster with the weather service.
“The trails around that lake are actually underwater in some of the low-lying spots,” Liske said.
The weather service reports the Ketchikan Airport got upwards of 6 inches of rain in a 24-hour period.
“Pretty much what’s happening is we’ve got a system out in the Gulf that’s just sitting and spinning,” Liske said.
Liske says more rain is on the way and a flood advisory is in effect through Thursday morning.
“We’ll still be seeing a few sort of minor short waves moving through through Wednesday and into Thursday and Friday,” he said.
Despite the rain, though, Liske says the area remains in an extreme drought. With all the rain, that might seem like a stretch. But Liske explains:
“When we look at a drought, we’re not looking at just the amount of rainfall you guys are getting, but how it’s replenishing the water sources in your area,” he said.
Liske says when the rain falls all at once, a lot flows out to sea instead of seeping into the ground or getting trapped in reservoirs. That’s key when projecting when low reservoirs feeding hydro plants will have recovered.
All the rain has some ratepayers wondering why KPU is still charging extra for electricity. The utility tacks on a “diesel surcharge” to pay for fuel and rental generators when hydroelectricity isn’t available.
The utility stopped burning diesel, at least for the most part, in late August. But Donato says the utility needs to be prepared.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Donato said.
He says the lakes that feed the region’s hydroelectric plants are still below normal levels. If the region gets enough rain to get lake levels back up to normal before things start to freeze in December, Donato says KPU could return some of the rented generators, but he’s not all that optimistic.
“I don’t know if Mother Nature’s going to grace us with that,” Donato said. “So, that said, we may need those diesels to support load in the later winter months.”
That’s one factor. Beyond that, Donato says the diesel surcharge is prorated over six months. That spreads out the cost, so customers don’t see massive spikes in their bills when KPU switches to diesel.
With the diesel generators shut off, though, Donato says the utility isn’t spending money on fuel — it’s just paying to rent the generators. He says the surcharge has dropped about a cent so far.
“So it’s going to drop again to some minimal level here, again, to support the rental costs, and then ultimately drop off,” Donato said.
Donato says KPU will know more in the next month or so as winter approaches.