State moves toward construction of Susitna-Watana dam 

By Mary Lochner | Anchorage Press— The Alaska Energy Authority is on its way to getting a license to build a hydroelectric dam on the Susitna River at Watana Creek, roughly 90 river miles northeast of Talkeetna.

Proponents of the dam say it will provide stable electricity rates for the Railbelt far into the future. Opponents charge it will cost too much in state money and impacts, and that there are better ways to provide for Alaska’s electricity needs.

Back in January 2009, then-Governor Sarah Palin was giving the Susitna-Watana dam its official raisons d’être. When she announced the state’s new goal of producing 50 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025, there was no mention of a dam project. Environmentalists praised the decision. They might have been less enthusiastic if they’d realized the goal would be widely cited as justification for bringing a major hydroelectric project in Alaska.

“The only way we could ever achieve that goal would be to have big hydro,” said Joe Griffith, Matanuska Electric Association’s general manager and also president of a new cooperative of Railbelt electric utilities.

“Everyone was concerned we were going to run out of gas in Cook Inlet,” he said. “What better way to get something resolved than to start talking about renewable, because that was a vogue term and still is.”

Griffith said it was a goal advanced by the Palin administration, not the utility companies, but he thinks it was a sensible move.

Money had already been appropriated in the 2008 legislative session to study the feasibility of big hydro in Alaska. In 2009, state-hired consultants evaluated possible hydro projects at two sites: one on the Susitna River, and one at Chakachamna in the Cook Inlet.

The Susitna site won out, and initial cost-analysis and evaluation of the project, based on modeling from the 1980s when it was first explored by the state, was completed in November 2009.

In the same month, the Alaska Energy Authority released its draft Railbelt Regional Integrated Resources Plan, a guiding document for development of the electrical power system in the Railbelt. It included construction of a major hydro project.

But getting half the state’s electricity from renewables wasn’t the legally-adopted state energy policy until June 16, 2010, when Gov. Sean Parnell signed House Bill 306. A group of citizens, some representing renewable energy groups, contributed to the final version that passed in the State house and senate and was signed by Parnell. The bill’s language doesn’t explicitly call for the major hydroelectric project that would likely be necessary in order to achieve its energy policy goals.

Chris Rose, who was on the citizens’ group that worked on the bill, said he remembers discussion about whether or not hydro counts as renewable (it doesn’t in most states). But, he said, he doesn’t remember anyone talking about a major hydro project as a way to achieve the bill’s renewable energy goals.

“I would not say it was ever discussed,” said Rose, who is Executive Director of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project. “I don’t think it was what anyone contemplated, was the only way to get the 50 percent was a dam.”

But the policy is cited by the Alaska Energy Authority as the reason building the Susitna-Watana hydroelectric dam not only desirable for the state, but also necessary. AEA’s webpage on big hydro in the Railbelt states” “The only way to achieve the new goal of deriving 50 percent of our electricity from renewable and alternative sources is for a new, large hydroelectric project to be built in the Railbelt region.”

The state agency met in April 2011 with the Federal Regulatory Commission, the federal agency in charge of licensing the dam, to discuss moving the project forward. By July 14, 2011, Governor Parnell had signed Senate Bill 42, authorizing the state to pursue and construct the dam. In Dec. 2011, AEA filed its pre-application with FERC, putting the project officially in the pre-licensing process.

Wayne Dyok, project manager for Susitna-Watana, said his team plans to apply for the dam’s license with FERC in September 2015. Construction, once it begins, is expected to take about seven years, he said. Read more

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