Metlakatla is seen in the distance in 2020 from a turnout on Walden Point Road on Annette Island. Metlakatla has run electrical and telecommunications cables to the ferry terminal at the end of the 14-mile road in preparation for the interconnection. (Eric Stone/KRBD)

A half-century-old plan to connect Metlakatla and Ketchikan’s power grids took a big step forward on Thursday. Ketchikan’s City Council voted unanimously to allow Metlakatla Power and Light to purchase power from the city-run utility, and vice versa.

But it’s another kind of connection that has the chair of Metlaktala’s utility especially excited.

“For Metlakatla, today’s a big day,” Metlakatla Mayor Albert Smith told Ketchikan’s City Council, underscoring the historic significance of the agreement to connect the two communities’ power grids.

“We’ve been working on this project for decades. And on our side, the land-based electric lines are in place,” he said. “But the most important thing, the foundation of making it all work, is the power purchase agreement in front of you.”

The agreement is just a few pieces of paper — there’s still a multimillion-dollar, two-mile-long undersea cable to fund, build, and bring online — but officials on both sides of Nichols Passage see it as a big step towards making the electrical intertie a reality.

Smith told the council that connecting the grids would benefit both communities.

“Through this agreement, both of our communities have access to backup power when needed. We both can reduce our reliance on diesel use, and we both have opportunities to sell excess power when available,” Smith said. “It’s truly a win-win for both of us, and it makes our region stronger and more resilient.”

The council unanimously praised the project. Council member Abby Bradberry thanked senior city officials for getting the agreement over the finish line after 57 years of discussions and false starts.

“This has been talked about for a while. I knew about it before I sat here,” she said. “It’s exciting to see that it’s actually being executed.”

It’s not clear when the grids will actually be connected. Acting Ketchikan Public Utilities Electric Division Manager Jeremy Bynum estimates it’ll be at least a couple of years.

In an interview, Metlakatla Power and Light Board Chair Keolani Booth applauded the council’s decision. Booth says it’s not just a step towards improving Metlakatla’s electrical grid — he says a submarine cable linking the two communities would also enable vastly improved internet service in the Annette Islands Reserve.

“They’re both one cable, the broadband and the electricity,” he said.

Booth says Metlakatla is awaiting a decision on its application for a roughly $11 million federal grant to partially fund the cable from the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It’s part of a program funded by last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that funds telecommunications infrastructure for tribal communities.

“We’re hoping to hear any day now — (I’m) checking my phone every day,” Booth said.

Once the internet connection is up and running, Booth says it’ll make a big difference for Metlakatla residents, students and business owners — he says it’d drive down rates and bring Metlakatla’s internet connections up to today’s standards. And he says faster internet could have a wide variety of benefits: for one, it could help cut down on costly medical travel.

“The biggest portion of people that we have on our island are elderly, and you’ve got people that have diabetes, and cancer patients and stuff like that, so it makes it really important for telehealth to work well,” Booth said. “If we had good internet and someone could take vitals and do all those things in real time, then people aren’t having to go to Anchorage, possibly.”

He says improving infrastructure in Metlakatla could also help stem the flow of people out of the region.

“I think everybody in leadership in the area realizes that we’ve got to make it a priority to try to keep people here in Ketchikan and Metlakatla and Prince of Wales (Island),” Booth said.

“We’ve all got to tackle our bills and work together to make sure everybody can afford life here,” he said. “Because I believe this is our piece of paradise, and we need to try to hold on to it.”

Ketchikan’s City Council is scheduled to take a final vote on the power sales agreement next month.