Southeast residents and business representatives continue to weigh in on the solutions for heating and powering the region over the next 50 years. A House Energy Committee heard a second session of testimony last week supporting and opposing the findings of the state’s draft energy plan for Southeast.

Consulting company Black and Veatch released the draft in December with recommendations for energy saving measures, conversions to biomass heating and further study for potential new hydro electric power plants for Southeast. The draft has met with a mixed reaction and that theme continued in the House Energy Committee’s second hearing on the plan.

Wrangell mayor Jeremy Maxand testified on behalf of the Southeast Alaska Power Agency board of directors. SEAPA owns hydro plants and transmission lines in the central and southern panhandle. “We recognize that we have a hydro storage capacity shortage,” Maxand said. “SEAPA is currently evaluating options to increase our storage capacity as well as other new energy resources. We are certainly planning for economic growth. We also recognize that the recent increase in the cost of heating oil has resulted in significant conversions from oil space heating to electric space heating. We’ve felt that on our system.”

The Southeast Alaska Integrated Resource Plan highlighted this growing number of residents in communities with hydro power switching to electrical heating. The document calls these conversions the “Achilles heel” of hydro power in the region because the cheap wintertime heat source is driving up demand and using up the hydro resource.

But many in the region say the state and private companies can build more hydro plants and transmission lines to keep up with the increasing demand. Paul Southland is executive director of the ACE Coalition, which is pushing for an intertie with Canada. “This draft report contains assumptions focused only on the home heating component and it minimizes the impact of heating oil pricing,” Southland said. “The IRP does not describe why consumers wisely have substituted from oil to electric heat but focuses on altering consumer behavior with demand side management and biomass as opposed to market forces and market principals. Simply put, who’s listening to the consumer’s clear choice of hydro electricity to heat their homes where its available?”

Southland said he couldn’t figure out why the plan recommended against construction of transmission lines connecting the region to British Columbia that could be used for importing and exporting electricity. The consultant’s analysis called this and other transmission line segments too costly to pursue under current market conditions.

The plan does recommend proceeding with several hydro projects and two transmission line projects already in the planning stages. Those include power lines that would link both Kake and Metlakatla to the SEAPA system already connecting Petersburg, Wrangell and Ketchikan.

Jodi Mitchell is CEO of the Inside Passage Electrical Cooperative, which provides power to several small southeast communities including Kake. She says electric home heating has impacted plans for the connection to Kake. “But now that everyone’s converted to electric heat, it wasn’t even a year after they cut the ribbons on the new intertie between Swan and Tyee that we were told there was no power for Kake,” Mitchell said. “And that was really crushing for us and our plans. We do have a plan B so to speak in that the Metlakatla intertie we believe will be able to provide us power indirectly of course through the SEAPA network.” Mitchell said waiting for another project to come online could push back a hydro power connection to Kake.

A number of people testifying weighed in on another of the plan’s recommendations, converting homes and public buildings to pellet or biomass heating to fill in the gap until more hydro power plants can be built. Larry Edwards with Greenpeace in Sitka said air exchange and ground source heat pumps are proven technologies already in use in Southeast communities. “What we need is a ten-year program for conversion to heat pumps and related technologies, not a ten-year program for biomass,” Edwards said. “For example in Sitka in 2008, already 38 percent of residential heat was according to the city’s load forecast electric resistance heat and of course it’s more than that by now. Converting these homes to heat pumps would cut power consumption enough to also move all fuel oil users to switch to heat pumps with a net reduction in the city’s power consumption.”

And commercial fisherman Joe Sebastian of Kupreanof thought pellet production would not be a sustainable business in Southeast. “The idea of turning the Tongass and the old growth into a pellet farm much like it used to be a pulp farm is never going to get anywhere,” Sebastian said. “And on the ground costs of production and in the field and shipping is going to make the pellet only industry cost prohibitive.”

Others thought biomass heating could help offset the high cost of heating. Trevor Sande of Ketchikan said his companies have designed and built a wood chip heating plant for the schools, pool and gym in the Prince of Wales Island community of Craig, along with conversion of the Coffman Cove school from diesel to wood heat. He thought it made more sense than transmission lines that have been completed. “The cost of that intertie really hasn’t benefitted Ketchikan like we all had hoped it would be,” Sande said. “And I agree with the IRP in that regard, I think that biomass really makes sense for all of Southeast, especially when you get off of the Juneau Sitka Ketchikan hydro grids. But even in those areas I believe its going to be necessary.”

Some of those testifying thought transmission lines could be built for less than the costs estimated in the draft plan. But Bill Corbus, former manager of Juneau’s utility Alaska Electric Light and Power was supportive of the findings on intertie costs. “The analysis looks at the transmission intertie from two perspectives, two economic perspectives and it fails to satisfy either test. So I am satisfied with the proposed elimination of that concept which has been around for a long time,” Corbus said.

The plan recommends going ahead with several projects in communities that are not slated for connection to the hydro grid. One such project is at Thayer Creek in Angoon. Peter Naoroz president and general manager of Kootznoowoo, Angoon’s Native corporation appreciated that the corporation’s project was recommended in the draft plan. However, Naoroz thought the document was not preparing for community growth and increasing electrical demand. “Angoon’s a half a megawatt load right now,” Naoroz said. “We have an airport planned that’s not in the IRP. We have a new ferry terminal that the state’s building that’s not in the IRP. We have dedicated to our shareholders 1000 lots. None of those lots are being absorbed during the time period that is provided here. An all electric home would be a really nice solution for our community given we have a project. Now the question is should that project be one megawatt or should it be three or four or five?”

The Alaska Energy Authority is taking public comments on the draft plan until March 19th.