FAIRBANKS -- A record crowd packed the Carlson Center Wednesday to attend Golden Valley Electric Association's annual members' meeting, with a steady stream of speakers battering the utility for high electric rates and a lack of vision.
The meeting drew nearly 1,900 members, and the theme from the beginning was the high cost of energy and how to bring it under control. Even before dozens of members began lining up to deliver comments, association director Ron Bergh told the often-rowdy crowd that their concerns had come across "loud and clear."
"You want lower electric rates," he said.
Association president Brian Newton used a prop to illustrate the main source of the high rates. A red 55-gallon barrel was rolled next to him, symbolizing the costly oil Golden Valley currently burns for much of its power generation. Oil prices have tripled in the last eight years, which he said is the key reason electric rates have doubled during that time.
"Why are bills too high? That's the reason right there," Newton said, banging on the barrel.
Newton said efforts are being made to cut electric costs. He mentioned plans to boost wind power, start a dormant coal plant in Healy and develop infrastructure to truck gas from the North Slope. If those options are brought online, he said, oil use will drop by 80 percent.
"Folks, if there was a cheaper fuel source to generate electricity, we would be using it," he said.
Newton said a key step to lower rates is restarting the Healy Clean Coal Project, a shuttered power plant that would be able to use the cheapest fuel source available to Golden Valley.
He said the main hurdle is a challenge to its permit by four environmental groups, including the Interior-based Northern Alaska Environmental Center and Denali Citizens Council.
Newton and numerous speakers blasted the groups for the move, saying they're standing in the way of more affordable electricity.
"We have two folks in our backyard opposing this plant," Newton said. "Shame on them."
Amid jeers from some in the audience, Sean McGuire said opponents of the coal plant deserved a more civil tone at the hearing. He said there are legitimate reasons to oppose the expanding use of coal.
"It's the dirtiest fuel in the world," he said.
Karen Max Kelly, the executive director of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, said Golden Valley had a potential agreement with the groups to restart the plant, but walked away from the deal.
Newton said it wasn't realistic to accept a deal that would only allow the plant to operate for a limited period of time.
Several speakers said they're frustrated that their efforts to conserve never seem to translate into any savings. Shannon Christensen said she's swapped out appliances and changed to more efficient bulbs, but has still seen her monthly bill skyrocket.
"I am facing retirement with the possibility of living off candles," Christensen said. "So don't talk to me about conservation and turning off lights."