Frustrations boiled over at a meeting in Petersburg last week of the organization that sells electrical power to Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan. Board members of the Southeast Alaska Power Agency, or SEAPA, ultimately decided to delay a vote on a take-over of operations at the Swan Lake hydro-electric plant near Ketchikan.
SEAPA is a joint organization formed by the three communities that sells local utilities power from two hydro-electric plants. It owns the plants at Tyee Lake near Wrangell and Swan Lake near Ketchikan, plus the transmission line connecting the two remote sites. SEAPA contracts with Ketchikan Public Utilities for the operations at Swan Lake, but CEO Trey Acteson this month asked board members to take a vote to end that contract in a year’s time.

“I mean there’s some clear benefits to KPU for doing this,” he said. “They would still get their wholesale power delivered to their front door at the wholesale power rate. We’ve already shown that reliability’s not gonna go down. More than likely it’s gonna be the same people at the plant doing the same job.”

Photo courtesy of the Southeast Alaska Power Agency

Photo courtesy of the Southeast Alaska Power Agency

Acteson said under such a change, four hydro plant staffers at Swan Lake would switch from working for KPU to working for SEAPA. The organization already made the same move with operations at Tyee Lake in 2014, ending a contract with the Wrangell-based Thomas Bay Power Authority.

“You know and the sky didn’t fall like everybody said it was gonna, the lights didn’t go out and power continues to be delivered,” Acteson explained. He thought it was the best business move for the agency to have control of operations at the plants it owns, instead of contracting out that work.

SEAPA board member Joe Nelson of Petersburg supported the change. He thought it would end problems that can arise from contracting for O and M or operations and maintenance of a power plant.

“You got a contractor that’s responsible for the O&M of the project, then you have something occur, something that needs to be fixed,” Nelson said. “Is that O&M or does that go beyond that? Those lines are always kinda gray and when that happens it results in delays, it results in hurt feelings, lot of negative things.”

For electrical customers in Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan, delays in fixing problems on the power grid can lead to longer interruptions in service.
SEAPA just started a multi-million dollar project to increase the height of the Swan Lake dam, which will increase water storage. During construction, it will continue to be one of the main power sources for the three communities. That’s not an issue. But as it did with the take-over of operations Tyee Lake, the board discussed friction between management at SEAPA, the plant owner and its contractor, KPU.

Board member Lew Williams III didn’t like the way the takeover has been proposed. He acknowledged the idea made sense, but took issue with Acteson’s approach.

“And I asked him, it’s best for the communities to do this someday, why don’t you try to work, be the bigger person, and work with these guys and get a nice trusting relationship and that’s a great way to take it over,” Williams said. “Well instead we’re gonna do a hostile take-over. It just makes me lack more confidence in your management.”

Judy Zenge of Ketchikan agreed the idea probably made sense in the long run, but did not think the time was right.

Stephen Prysunka of Wrangell noted the change was not an easy one for the end of the Thomas Bay contract at Tyee Lake. “It caused a great deal of division in our community, a lot of heartache for a lot of people,” Prysunka said. “We’re still dealing with the repercussions of that, from the Thomas Bay office being checked out.”

And KPU’s Andy Donato, also a SEAPA board member, thought there were many benefits to keeping the contract with KPU. He thought the local utility could mobilize employees more quickly than SEAPA.

“The road washes out, KPU can appoint a special crew, get machinery in,” Donato said. “They have done this for the road wash out. So historically there’s been this benefit. They’ve been here for what, 30 some, 30-40 years, so they have this history.”

Other board members thought ending the contract was probably a good idea but wanted to wait on that decision. Board chair John Jensen of Petersburg noted he was initially really upset with the end of the Thomas Bay contract, but later changed his mind.

“Maybe this is another process that’s gonna take some time, not vote on it today and slam the door,” Jensen said. “I agree with what’s been said at the table here, it’s not an instant process. I do agree with SEAPA taking over O&M but I think we need to keep it in our discussion a little bit longer and work out the details and maybe everybody’ll come to grips with it a little bit better like I did, it took a long time.”

The board voted 4-1 to table the motion to provide one-year notice to end the contract with KPU. Joe Nelson of Petersburg was the only vote to proceed.
At the end of their meeting board members and staff sounded a more cooperative note.

Clay Hammer of Wrangell urged the communities to work together. “The success of SEAPA and the two operations in question have always been contingent on all three communities coming together and putting our best foot forward to make sure that the needs of all of us are met, in the spirit of collaboration between all three communities and I don’t wanna see that end,” Hammer said.

Board members agreed to bring the issue back up in the next year.