Skagway tour company is going green with its own microhydropower project

Posts from old docks built during the Yukon Gold Rush remain at Dyea near Skagway, June 27, 2014. (Creative Commons photo by Susan Drury)
Posts from old docks built during the Yukon Gold Rush remain at Dyea near Skagway, June 27, 2014. (Creative Commons photo by Susan Drury)

One of Skagway’s largest employers is working towards energy independence. Alaska Excursions is working on building its own hydroelectric facility to end its reliance on diesel at its main tour complex in neighboring Dyea.

There are maybe 40 or so residents in Dyea, a valley community just west of Skagway. Most get their power and utilities from Alaska Power and Telephone. Alaska Excursions, recently rebranded as Alaska X, is one of only a handful of businesses in Dyea but isn’t connected to the grid.

National Park Service land between its tour complex and the power lines make running electricity out there untenable.

In order to power their gift shop, cafe, and tour facilities, the company’s owner Robert Murphy relies on a diesel generator. Four years ago, in an effort to go green, Murphy started the process of harnessing the natural power of Nelson Creek that runs through his property.

“We’re burning a lot of diesel. And when we’ve got this clean energy and this possibility here, it just makes the best sense,” said Murphy.

They’re not damming the creek. Instead, water will plummet downhill 2,900 feet through a 10-inch diameter pipe and into a turbine. At the bottom of the pipe, the water will be squeezed into 1-inch jets to increase the concentration of the flow so it will hit that turbine at a pressure of 160 pounds per square inch and generate 60 kilowatts of electricity. After the water spins the turbine, it will be released back into Nelson Creek just above the salmon habitat area.

Visitors to the camp will be able to access a platform to view one of the waterfalls and the turbine.

Visitors to the camp will be able to access a platform to view one of the waterfalls and the turbine. (Photo by Mike Swasey / KHNS)

“You’ll actually have a big viewing window so you can actually see the hydro working and they can see how it how much water it’s using and how and how much power and everything’s gonna be lit up based on that,” said Murphy.

According to Robert Murphy, the amount of water that will be diverted won’t interfere with the beauty of the waterfalls Nelson Creek is known for. The plans say it will reduce the flow of the creek by about one-tenth.

He hopes to have most of the work on the hydro system done by this fall with a rollout of hydropower for his buildings targeted for next spring.

It’s not just the buildings that Murphy is hoping to power with this new hydroelectric source, it’s all of the vehicles that transport guests and staff around the mountainous terrain daily. He plans to purchase electric all-terrain vehicles, but the effort to fit his four-wheel drive Unimog trucks with electric vehicle technology will take more time.

Murphy said, “Our head mechanic, Luke Rauscher, is working on a design actually from SpaceX and Tesla, and ElonMusk, which you can adapt an electric drive motor right to your existing transfer case.”

Murphy thinks the vehicles will get a boost in horsepower from the conversion. In the future, he hopes to be able to work with the municipality of Skagway to provide power to a vehicle charging station in Dyea for his transport busses and the general public. He said the project isn’t just about his businesses’ bottom line.

“We could be burning these diesel generators for 50 years, and have two or three of them for the money that it costs us to do this. But there’s a lot more opportunity with this. If we end up putting all these charging stations in here.”

The project has received permits from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and is currently in a public comment period through the state Department of Natural Resources through June 1.