Power Lines Blog

August in Alaska: powering the last frontier

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Early in August, I travelled to Girdwood, Alaska, to attend the 2016 summer meeting of APPA’s Advisory Committee. This committee is made up of the heads of state and regional public power associations from around the country. It helps APPA with its advocacy efforts in Washington, advises APPA staff on key policy issues (playing an important role in APPA’s resolutions process), and informs APPA about what is happening on energy issues in the various states. But equally important, the committee serves as a forum where members can compare notes with each other — about everything from how to handle complex legislative issues to what association management software packages are working best for them. So there is always plenty to talk about when this group meets.

We met in Alaska because APPA has a number of public power utility members there, and we wanted to hear firsthand about the issues they are facing. And we certainly did. Crystal Enkvist, executive director of the Alaska Power Association, spoke about the regulatory issues Alaska utilities are dealing with, including the potential formation of a “Railbelt Transco” (the Railbelt being the part of Alaska that runs from Homer in the south up to Fairbanks in the north) to better coordinate transmission and generation service.

Gary Hennigh, the city administrator of King Cove, Alaska, a remote Aleut community on the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula 625 miles Southwest of Anchorage, described the challenges of providing utility service in rural Alaska. King Cove is blessed with two hydropower units  — one operating now, one about to go into service — that allow the utility to avoid heavy reliance on fuel oil to power the town, as many rural Alaska communities must do. But King Cove’s biggest challenge is assuring access to medical services for its residents during all weather conditions — you can read all about it at www.cityofkingcove.com/blog (August 5 entry), but suffice it to say that the lack of a 12-mile gravel road from King Cove through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge to Cold Bay, where there is an all-weather airstrip that supports transport of patients to Anchorage, can create life-threatening situations for the residents. Anyone who follows Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) knows she has made this issue a cause celebre, and in July, the Alaska delegation introduced legislation to address it.

The Advisory Committee took a field trip during its meeting to the Eklutna Hydroelectric Project, which is 30 miles northeast of Anchorage. The 40 MW facility is operated by Anchorage Municipal Light & Power (known to all as “ML&P”). The water comes from Eklutna Lake through a 4.5 mile tunnel that runs through Goat Mountain, and then through a penstock to the two 20 MW turbines. The project is a long standing resource in MLP’s power supply portfolio, having once been run by the now-sold Alaska Power Administration. Touring the plant was yet another reminder of the role that clean hydropower plays in public power utility portfolios.

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After the committee meeting was over, we on APPA staff took a side trip to the offices of ML&P. We met with Mark Johnston, ML&P’s general manager, and Anna Henderson, regulatory affairs division manager. They talked with us about the new generation unit ML&P is developing (the 120 MW George M. Sullivan Plant 2A expansion), a very energy-efficient thermal generation power project. Plant 2A will replace aging, less efficient units, improving ML&P’s reliability. But more important to the residents of Anchorage, the plant will be colocated with the city’s water supply. It will heat the city’s water, reducing water pipe freeze-ups, and allowing laundry detergent to actually dissolve when residents use the cold cycle on their clothes washers (right now, the water temperature is so cold, detergent often will not dissolve!). As I handle our family’s laundry duties, that particular benefit of the new plant hit home for me.

My husband and I then stayed up in Alaska to take some vacation, figuring if we had traveled all this way, we should spend some time exploring the state. Among other places, our travels took us to Seward, down on the coast. Seward is located at the head of Resurrection Bay on the Kenai Peninsula, along a glacial fjord with spectacular mountains and wildlife — we took a day cruise and saw sea otters, puffins, whales, and harbor seals.

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Seward was also the starting point of the Iditarod Trail. On Christmas Day, 1908, gold was discovered on Otter Creek, a tributary of the Iditarod River. To boost Seward as the winter port to serve the new gold field, the Seward Commercial Club hired the famous Japanese Alaska pioneer musher Jujiro Wada, who led a crew of local Seward men to blaze a trail to the newly discovered gold mine. The Iditarod Trail began as a mail and supply route from the coastal towns of Seward and Knik to the interior mining camps as far away as Nome. In 1925, the Iditarod Trail became a life-saving highway for Nome when it was stricken by a diphtheria epidemic. Serum was sent via dogsled to the western community.

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The Iditarod now is a national historic trail, and is called the “Last Great Race on Earth.”  Each year, an extremely competitive dogsled race takes place of more than 1,150 miles from Anchorage to Nome. Mile O in Seward is marked by a historical monument. If you want to know more, check out www.iditarod.com. Seward is also the ocean terminus of what is now the Alaska Railroad (we took a spectacular ride from Girdwood to Seward), and has Alaska’s only deep-water, ice-free port.

While in Seward, I dropped by the offices of the Electric Department of the City of Seward, meeting up with John Foutz, the utility manager. As it is on a peninsula, Seward has to pay special attention to maintaining reliability. Its wholesale power and transmission service provider is Chugach Electric Association, but it has to maintain local generation capable of keeping the city’s lights on if service is disrupted. And it has to deal with issues that public power utilities in remote areas often encounter — right now, the transmission line that serves Seward is threatened by a change in the water course of the Snow River to its North.

It is no coincidence that public power utilities often provide electric service in remote areas —our public service mission and not-for-profit orientation make us well suited for the special challenges these communities present. So I want to salute the public power utilities in Alaska —providing electricity to the Last Frontier.

Sue Kelly

Sue Kelly

President and CEO

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this great travelogue series Sue! For many of us who may never get to the northern tundra and other places, these posts really bring their work and life home.

  2. Your travel blogs really remind me how much public power is a part of the spirit of America – the “can do” attitude that it takes to make it in remote areas like the Alaskan communities you and the Advisory Committee visited. We all need that reminder now and again, and need to toot our horns occasionally! Glad you got a little time off to recharge, as well!

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