Anchorage Daily News - March 1, 2007 - Compass: Points of view from the community 
River's clean power keeps drifting past

Back in the early 1980s, there was a major push to put into place an energy future for Alaska that was not tied to volatile energy prices. This future involved the Susitna hydroelectric project on the Susitna River north of Talkeetna. 

The project was to consist of two dams: Watana, a concrete-faced, earth-fill dam, and Susitna, a concrete thin-arch structure. The two dams together were to produce 1,600 megawatts of firm power. Project life would be more than 100 years. The state had the money to build it for cash.

Construction of the first dam, Watana, would take about nine years and employ 1,200 to 1,500 Alaskans. Under the most optimistic schedule, power from Watana would come on line in 1995, just as it was needed for the normal replacement cycle of existing generation equipment. Millions of dollars of capital expenditures would be avoided

As Watana phased down, Susitna would ramp up, thus keeping the experienced work force intact. When Susitna came on line around 2004, any excess power would be used for low-cost electric heating. As the Railbelt's base load picked up, excess capacity would be diverted away from heating through a predetermined phase-out plan.

Once the dams were in place and the project complete, operating costs would be minimal. Fuel cost would be zero, since God provides the fuel by evaporating water from the oceans and depositing it as rain and snow in the hills and mountains upstream from the dams. Each drop of water would be used twice, first by passing through the turbines of Watana, then a few miles downstream doing the same thing at Susitna.

The energy equivalent of the water passing through the dams would be roughly 15 million barrels of oil per year. At $60 a barrel, that's $900 million.

The two dams would be ideally located roughly midway between the major load centers in Fairbanks and Anchorage. The Anchorage-Fairbanks intertie, originally intended to carry Susitna power, was built. About $175 million was spent on environmental and geotechnical studies of the dam site and related infrastructure. All environmental and technical issues could be managed.

Why, you may ask, with all these favorables, wasn't the project built? If it had been, we would now be enjoying low-cost, inflation-proof power, and there would be billions of cubic feet of Cook Inlet natural gas still in the ground rather than wastefully used to generate electricity.

The answer is chilling in its simplicity: lack of leadership, and politics as usual. When Gov. Bill Sheffield killed the project, his decision was based on accounting calculations showing the dams might not be the lowest-cost alternative in the first 15 years of life. We now know they guessed wrong, big time.

Key members of the Legislature succumbed to the lure of patronage money. They didn't want something like Susitna soaking up large amounts of a legislator's best friend, free money. Those supporting the project were gradually worn down, and it died. (Tom Starr, manager of Municipal Light and Power in the mid 1980s, estimated the added cost to gas consumers of not building the Susitna project at more than $2 billion during the life of the Cook Inlet natural gas field.)

So here we sit. Every day that passes brings us closer to our day of reckoning. Gas and electricity prices will continue to climb. Water still evaporates from the ocean and is carried into the hills above the dam sites. The river still flows through the canyon to the sea. Our nonpolluting energy equivalent of 15 million barrels of oil helps no one. It's not too late to build the Susitna project, but it soon will be.

Can we do anything about it? Probably not. Leadership, courage and vision are always in short supply. We'll keep muddling along from day to day, making short-term, expedient decisions. As time goes on, the price of our bumbling will become more and more evident and more and more painful.

What might have been "power to the people" will be just a footnote under "woulda, coulda, shoulda."

Lee Wareham lives in Chugiak and is a retired Alascom vice president. 

ADN Letters - March 16, 2007

Hydro power a great way to provide renewable electricity to Alaska

Many thanks to Lee Wareham for the March 1 Compass piece, "River's clean power keeps drifting past," which hit the nail right on. I have almost 40 years in the power field, installing, maintaining and designing power plants for just about every type of generation in use today, including hydro. I know that if hydro had not been developed for our "good" friends in Washington state, they would not be where they are today -- with low cost and available power. I don't think it is too late to try to get a Susitna project going.

The Matanuska Electric Association just put out a flier about having several new power sources by 2015. They start out saying they want the lowest cost and most reliable power source. These don't match. As the old saying goes: "You get what you pay for." They say the initial mix in 2015 will be 45 percent natural gas (renewable?), 45 percent clean coal (renewable? clean? cheap?) and 10 percent renewable resources (assuming wind, solar, not cheap or always there). Why not get with the state and other utilities and get the money together to build a 100 percent renewable resource plant, the Susitna hydroelectric plant. This to me is really the only answer. Even though the tree huggers and their like don't consider hydro power a renewable resource, I do think it can happen.

-- Allen W. Showalter