A draft plan for Southeast’s energy future is running into opposition from businesses and Southeast community leaders. Residents and business representatives told the House Energy Committee last week that the plan should include more electrical transmission lines and hydro power plants for Southeast and for export.
The draft Southeast Alaska Integrated Resource Plan released this winter aims to provide direction for decision makers on how to meet current and future energy needs. Among other findings, the plan recommends a mix of energy saving measures, several new electrical transmission line segments and use of biomass pellet heating for Southeast homes and public buildings.
Kevin Harper is project director with Black and Veatch, the consulting firm hired to write the plan. He told legislators the firm recommended a diverse portfolio of energy resources. “In the near term you go forward with the committed resources which do include hydro,” Harper said. You do demand side management, energy efficiency. You focus on biomass conversions. And you do the studies to determine which projects should be the next round of investments, hydro and otherwise.”
Harper outlined the unique terrain and high cost of building new powerlines around Southeast. The draft plan recommends against building out additional segments of the regions power grid, except for several lines already under study to hook in Metlakatla and Kake. The consultants also recommend against a transmission line into British Columbia for exporting or importing power.
The draft plan notes a shortage of storage hydro projects, or plants that can provide power when the energy use is highest during wintertime peaks. It recommends proceeding with hydro expansion in Sitka and several proposed projects near Hoonah, Hydaburg, Angoon and Ketchikan. It also says the state may have to require changes to the power sales agreement in place for Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan, to allow other utility systems to connect to the Southeast grid.
Harper noted that two thirds of what people spend on their monthly energy bill goes into heating homes and businesses. He thought the region could do a lot to bring that cost down. “You go down the path along the lines of what we’ve recommended, you will save somewhere north of 40 percent in people’s energy bills on a monthly basis, residents, businesses,” Harper said. “And if you go down that path, you will save more money than if you try to build simply hydro and transmission to meet your electric needs.”
A number of those who testified thought the plan was headed in the wrong direction. Brad Fluetsch of Juneau is an executive committee member of the Alaska Native Brotherhood. He said the document ignores potential new hydro plants along with wind, geothermal and tidal energy capacity. “By not exploring the potential maximum load, the generating capacity in Southeast, the conclusions and pathways the consultant recommends are not valid and in fact are biased against growth and prosperity,” Fluetsch said. “And if implemented will lead to regional deterioration, continued out-migration and further redistricting.”
Fluetsch called the plan fundamentally flawed and he wasn’t alone.
“Our biggest complaint with the existing document is we believe that there should be a brighter future than is envisioned in this draft,” said Bob Grimm CEO of Alaska Power and Telephone, a company that provides electricity to communities on Prince of Wales Island and Lynn Canal. “Whoever made the decision to use the low load forecast, ignore the resource industry, ignore existing loads and say they’re on their own. That’s a serious mistake. It has to be corrected.” Grimm thought the plan did not account for high energy demand that could be possible from new resource development in the region or powering cruise ships tied up at Southeast ports. Grimm said the plan could be corrected and he didn’t think it had to be scrapped.
However, Bob Loescher of Juneau said the legislators should not use plan as a basis for their policy decisions or funding projects. “This plan is driven by the Alaska Energy Authority and the public utilities. And its from their perspective that this plan is drafted. They try to deal with the immediate near future. And they have this DSM proposals and this wood pellet proposal but its not going to solve the immediate energy needs of our region,” Loescher said. DSM is demand side management, or energy conservation measures.
Jan Trigg with Coeur Alaska, which operates the Kensington Mine did not want to discount the possibilities for new transmission lines. “A Southeast intertie and an AK-BC intertie is a long term solution which supports investing in projects which will put power in a grid that increases energy independence and security,” she said. Trigg urged legislators to plan for new mining projects like Bokan Mountain and Niblack on Prince of Wales Island.
Angoon mayor Albert Howard faulted the public process that produced the plan and urged the state to fund an intertie connection to bring cheaper power to his community.
Not all of those testifying disliked the plan’s findings. Angel Drobnica, energy coordinator for the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, supported a number of the consultant’s recommendations. “We are very pleased that the plan places a strong emphasis on energy and conservation,” she said. “This will reduce current and future loads and was the most accessible, cost effective and easily achievable ways to meet our energy needs. We encourage the state to engage the public and work closely with regional utilities to design and implement conservation and efficiency programs.” Drobnica liked the plan’s analysis of space heating needs but wanted more focus on other technology like heat pumps.
The draft plan is out for public comment. Rick Harris, executive Vice President of Sealaska Corporation, is the chair of the plan’s 21-member working group. He noted the working group did not endorse the draft. “Because there were so many things that were developed in this plan that we have not seen before – challenges and questioning to the transmission line, or the intertie, different kinds of approaches to looking at energy, all of which were very staggering in terms of the public policy we’re dealing with. So for that reason the committee did not endorse this plan,” Harris said. “I wanna stress that. The committee did not endorse the plan. But the committee did endorse that it go out for public review and comment.”
The state has spent just over 900-thousand dollars for the consultants to draft the first phase of the plan, including meetings of the advisory working group that provided input. The plan could be updated in three years to five years. That second phase would identify which new energy projects should be pursued. Legislators could look to the final plan to help them make decisions on which new projects to fund, or changes to the electrical system in Southeast.
The legislative committee planned to continue taking public comment at a future hearing. The comment period on the draft plan runs until March 19th.