Juneau officials ‘confident’ utility operators will keep the lights on during COVID-19 pandemic

A hydroelectric generator with the valves controlling the water supply is recessed into the floor in the AEL&P Gold Creek Hydro Plant on July 20, 2018. (Photo by David Purdy/KTOO)

Juneau’s utility operators are taking steps to protect staff from COVID-19, but they say they’re well-prepared to continue running throughout the pandemic.

Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt used to be the city’s engineering director for about 8 years. He said the city and borough is prepared for a worst-case scenario.

“I feel confident that we’re not going to have problems continuing to run the utilities, even if we have a pretty big outbreak here,” Watt said.

Juneau’s new Engineering Director Katie Koester starts Monday. She recently arrived from Homer, where she was the city manager.

Watt said the city’s water and wastewater treatment systems don’t require a large number of employees to operate. Some controls can even be operated remotely.

The city also has emergency diesel generators capable of running the water system if they lose power.

“We’re just kind of battening down the hatches, waiting for the storm and not really having any idea how big the storm’s gonna be,” Watt said.

Deb Driscoll from Alaska Electric Light & Power said the situation is similar for the local hydropower system. Much of their staff is working remotely or in shifts.

She said they also rely on local internet and phone providers and helicopter companies to help AEL&P function and do regular equipment maintenance.

“We can continue to do the job that we’re doing to provide this essential function, because others are continuing to do their essential functions as well,” Driscoll said.

The company has closed its Lemon Creek office to the public, but staff are now available during extended hours to respond to customer questions and concerns.

For now, both AEL&P and the city have suspended late fees and electricity and water shutoffs for customers who cannot pay.