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Rearden's wrong; proposed dam is for people, not for mines

Elaine Brown

Dear Alaska Dispatch,

Nuvista Light and Electric Cooperative read, with interest, Don Rearden’s commentary about Senate Bill 32 (which Don named HB 32) and the Chikuminuk Lake Hydroelectric Project. We hope you will consider sharing the following information with your readers. We are in the early stages of investigating the Chikuminuk Lake Hydroelectric Project, which is a long studied project. We will not commit to this project unless Chikuminuk is a good fit for the region and does no harm to subsistence resources. SB 32/HB 137 would allow Nuvista to do this, namely study and gather appropriate environmental, geological, and technical information. While we don’t yet know if Chikuminuk is feasible or appropriate, there is no question that new solutions are needed to meet Western Alaska’s energy challenges.

Rural Alaska is dependent on imported petro-based fuels. High and rising electric, fuel and heating costs undermine the foundations of life in rural Alaska. Low-income families are hardest hit by the high cost of diesel-powered energy, with some households paying more than 50 percent of their monthly income for heat and electricity. Even with the PCE (power cost equalization) program covering the first 500 kilowatts for residents, the residents of rural Alaska still pay more than twice their urban neighbors for electricity. PCE subsidies do not extend to businesses or schools; their electric bills are four to five times those of urban Alaska and those costs are passed along to their customers. The volatility of the petro-based fuel system, punishes business and family finances, ultimately threatening the future of cultures and communities.

Chikuminuk was first studied prior to statehood or park establishment, when diesel was cheap and the risks of fuel deliveries up-river and potential spills were rarely considered. We understand concerns about allowing hydroelectric in the park and recognize that hydropower at Chikuminuk Lake is considered an “incompatible use” by the Park’s governing regulations. However, previous decision makers, those who set aside the state Park in the late 1970’s, recognized the Wood-Tikchik area was one of few places to harness hydropower resources, and allowed for dams at two lakes – Grant and Elva.

Previous engineering investigations of Chikuminuk as well as our recent work, suggests that Chikuminuk Lake offers more power than Grant and Elva combined, meeting or exceeding the current generating capacity of Bethel and Dillingham’s combined diesel-powered electrical grids. While Mr. Rearden’s commentary only references the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta as a recipient of power, we are exploring options to serve villages in both Bristol Bay and the Y-K region. In addition, Chikuminuk is remote, receives very little recreation or subsistence activity, and does not support a salmon run.

As a non-profit electric cooperative (not a “company” as Mr. Rearden calls us), Nuvista’s mission is to serve the region – we share many of the concerns individuals have expressed. Additionally, Nuvista’s board members live in or are from the region. As a result, we, too, are concerned about how a dam might impact fish, wildlife, recreation, and other valued resources. We understand Alaskans want to know: What is the cost to build the project? How much power will be generated? Which communities will receive the power? SB 32/HB 137 would allow Nuvista to gather answers. This point is critical – SB 32/HB 137 does not approve the project – it allows investigations to go forward. Before any determination can be made, Nuvista will conduct multiple years of studies, and work alongside local community members, regional and state interests, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to thoroughly understand project impacts and benefits.

We have been able to gather some data and information already. Currently we have three stream gauges in place to understand water flow; temporary gages were installed in spring and removed in the fall to monitor water temperature; and we have plans for extensive resource specific studies in 2013 through 2016 if SB 32 is passed. We understand that individuals (like Mr. Rearden) suspect that this project is related to mining projects or other industrial development. This is just not true; the project is solely for the people and the communities. In fact it would not generate even a fraction of the power needed for the various prospective mines in the regions. As for which communities will get the power, we don’t know at this time but intend to study routes that would go to both Bethel and Dillingham. How much will it cost, who will pay? We have commissioned an economic analysis that should be complete soon. But in short, we do not yet know the project cost.

The state of Alaska has a history of investing in projects to support community well-being. The Four-Dam Pool project in the 1980’s used state funds to develop four hydroelectric projects to support the communities of Kodiak, Valdez/Glennallen, Ketchikan, and Wrangell/Petersburg. While there were likely critics of these projects at their inception, these communities have benefitted from stable, affordable electricity for over 30 years (and will continue to do so for decades more).

There is no single solution to rural Alaska’s energy challenges. Nuvista is looking at a range of alternatives to the volatility and environmentally damaging diesel-powered system, including conservation, wind power, biomass and intertied villages. Mr. Rearden mentions wind power as an alternative to a dam. We agree that wind is a promising, renewable energy option for some villages and are happy to see it being installed in many Y-K and Bristol Bay communities; however, not all the communities in southwest Alaska are well-located for wind power. Further, wind must be coupled with a stable power source for the times that it is not blowing. The wind power currently operating in rural Alaska offsets diesel power, which remains the primary generator of electricity. Wind coupled with hydro could create a completely renewable electric grid system. Wind power could make a great partner with hydro for those times when the wind does not blow.

The bottom line is that new energy solutions are needed in Western Alaska, solutions founded on thorough investigation, working with the people who are most affected by these decisions. SB 32/HB 137 allows this informational process to go forward.

Elaine Brown is chief executive officer of Nuvista Light & Electric Cooperative, Inc.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.