Like many isolated communities in Alaska, energy production in Gustavus is a fundamental concern.
An 800-kilowatt hydroelectric project was completed in 2009 and has served the community at the mouth of Glacier Bay ever since.
Now, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve is going to tap into that green power, and it has some citizens of the town concerned.
“I’m one of an elite group in Gustavus who deals with the hydro issue, and we’re known locally as the power rangers,” Jim Macovjak said as he hikes up three miles and 700 vertical feet to Falls Creek, the source of his community’s power.
Macovjak is a long-time resident and former mayor of Gustavus. He also co-owns an electric car.
“You know, looking at the water above the dam here, and realizing that’s what is powering my car right now,” he said.
Macovjak estimates there are over a dozen electric cars in the community of 400-plus people. He also says electric heat pumps are becoming popular.
Glacier Bay National Park, headquartered just five miles from the dam, currently runs solely on diesel and the parks service wants a piece of the green energy too.
The park’s superintendent Philip Hoogie calls the plan to tap into Gustavus’s hydropower “the big extension cord.”
It will be 9 miles long, cost up to $7 million of already appropriated federal dollars, and, in two years make the park part of Gustavus’s power grid.
“We’re the largest employer in Gustavus, but I’m also a community member. My house is there in the center of town and my wife is on the school board, and I have two kids in the school, and so we’re pretty integrated in with the community,” Hoogie said.
Like Muskovjak, Hoogie and the park service love lowering their carbon footprint. But, they also like low rates.
Right now, that is not the case in Gustavus. With rates at 40-plus cents per kilowatt hour, one business owner I spoke to is moving his business to Juneau where rates are less than half that.
The reasons for this high rate are complicated.
One big factor is that Falls Creek itself occasionally freezes in winter, and sometimes it loses volume in dry summers.
Whenever this happens, diesel generators fire up.
“I can hear the diesel power plant from my house,” said Gustavus Mayor Barb Miranda. “On those quiet winter days you can hear it throughout town.”
The freezing creek is out of anyone’s control, but what is at stake now is how connecting the park is going to affect the community.
The park has its own diesel generators, which could help the town if its generators are down — or the other way around. The town is also thinking about smart metering and variable rates to charge electric cars at night.
At this point, Miranda wants Gustavus to have a seat at the table with the Park Service, Alaska Power and Telephone and the Regulatory Commission of Alaska before the summer is over, in order to “reach some kind of common understanding of what the project entails,” she said. “And what it’s ramifications are going to be on the citizens of Gustavus.”
But right now, it’s summertime. The fish are jumping, the living is easy, the creek is flowing and there is enough clean energy for everyone.
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