Power plan questions Southeast-wide electrical grid

Southeast leaders should stop trying to build a regionwide power grid. Instead, they need to focus on saving energy and developing wood-powered heating plants. Those are among recommendations from an in-depth study of the region’s energy issues released this week.

The draft Southeast Alaska Integrated Resource Plan was unveiled during an advisory group meeting at Juneau’s Baranof Hotel. (Link to the plan’s website.)

A helicopter lowers a tower during construction of the Swan-Tyee Intertie. Photo by Dave Carlson/SEAPA.

The Alaska Energy Authority plan recommends completing two power lines that already have some momentum. One would link Kake to Petersburg and the other would connect Metlakatla to Ketchikan.

But consultant Kevin Harper says a region-wide grid is just too expensive.

“Largely a combination of the high cost of building transmission (lines) and the very low loads in the region make the cost of transmission uneconomic,” Harper says.

The plan also says a line across the border to Canada is not worth building.

It says reduced power use, through efficiency efforts and lowered peak-time demands, is a better way to cut electrical costs.

The energy authority’s Jim Strandberg says that includes reversing the growing trend of using electricity instead of fuel oil to heat homes and businesses.

“That has really, in a rather unexpected fashion, caused their loads to go high. And they’ve consumed what they thought in many cases was adequate hydro capacity,” Strandberg says.

The energy plan recommends continued work on building or expanding five hydroprojects. They are Angoon’s Thayer Lake, Hydaburg’s Reynolds Creek, Ketchikan’s Whitman Lake, Hoonah’s Gartina Falls and Sitka’s Blue Lake. (Read the draft plan.)

It also calls for a more detailed study and comparison of several other projects before they move ahead.

Wood pellets are loaded into a silo at Sealaska Plaza. Casey Kelly photo.

Advisory board chairman Rick Harris says research shows wood-powered biomass energy should also be a big part of the solution.

“New technologies in some areas, tidal or wave action may be a viable alternative in the future. But we just see that’s one (where) the technology’s well developed. And so we think it has an important role in the region,” Harris says.

Harris is executive vice president of Sealaska. The regional Native corporation recently switched to a pellet boiler to heat its Juneau headquarters. It’s also trying to develop a regional wood-heat industry.

Plan authors heard from critics during the meeting. Sitka’s Larry Edwards, of Greenpeace, opposes the biomass focus. Speaking by phone, he says wood burners add too much carbon to the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change.

He also says the plan’s authors ignored good information on heat pumps.

“What would make all this stuff work is underground thermal energy storage, which is a well-proven, well-demonstrated, used in many places technology. You can collect these kinds of surplus or waste energy when it’s available and use it months later when you need it,” Edwards says.

Others criticized the plan’s dismissal of a region-wide grid, which they see as boosting business growth.

Juneau’s Brad Fluetsch spoke as an Alaska Native Brotherhood official.

“One of the things about the transmission grid we also need to think about: It’s not just power going over that line. That is going to bring broadband to every one of our communities. The internet, and wireless communications, is as important to our economic development as electricity,” Fluetsch says.

Consultants also recommend changes for SEAPA, the Southeast Alaska Power Agency. It runs two large hydropower projects and the lines linking them to Ketchikan, Petersburg and Wrangell.

Energy consultant Kevin Harper

Energy authority consultant Kevin Harper says its operational agreements discourage new hydropower development.

“The issue is right now there’s no provision on the SEAPA system for someone outside the SEAPA utilities to move power over their system. That is an issue that if addressed would make it easier for other parties to come in and propose projects and use that system,” Harper says.

SEAPA CEO Dave Carlson says the system works. He says the agency requires member communities to buy its power before going to another source. But that should not stop new projects that fill power gaps.

“Essentially, you can’t displace power from an existing hydroproject. That makes no sense at all. That will just cost the ratepayers more money,” Carlson says.

Parts of the plan, which is open to public comment, would require substantial state investment. And authors admit other parts could be hard to put into place. But they project it could save the region about $350 million over the next two years, and more than $2 billion in 50 years.

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