Compass: Susitna hydro is key to Railbelt and Alaska's renewable energy future

By SUSAN BELLOctober 11, 2012 

I live and work in Juneau and know firsthand what hydroelectric can do for our communities. The development of our capital city happened because of hydroelectric power, beginning with the operation of large gold mines during the gold rush in the late 1800s. Today, hydropower contributes 21 percent of all electricity generated in Alaska. With more than 3,000 rivers and millions of lakes across the state, hydro promises to play an even bigger role in Alaska's energy future.

Alaska faces unique challenges and higher costs when it comes to providing energy for homes and businesses in rural and urban regions of the state. Our electricity costs are the fifth highest nationwide. Communities and cultures cannot thrive when residents and business owners are crippled by such high energy costs.

As leaders, parents and grandparents, we have an obligation to plan for the energy needs of our children and future generations of Alaskans. That's why the state is working on a long-term energy policy that includes diversifying Alaska's energy portfolio and encouraging all of us to use energy more efficiently through conservation.

The Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) is the state's leading agency responsible for developing our long-term energy policy and finding solutions to meet Alaska's energy challenges. In 2011, Gov. Sean Parnell and the Alaska Legislature, by unanimous consent, authorized AEA to proceed with the development of Susitna-Watana Hydro. The proposed project site is located in a remote area of the Susitna River, 184 river miles from Cook Inlet and 80 river miles north of Talkeetna.

Susitna-Watana Hydro will deliver roughly 50 percent of the Railbelt's electricity, providing the single largest portion of renewable power to help Alaska achieve its 50 percent renewable energy goal by 2025. It will provide energy and price stability in concert with other renewable energy sources for the next 100 years.

AEA has hired a world-class team of experts with large hydro experience to navigate the project through a long, arduous Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) permitting process. We hope to obtain a license to build the project by 2017, with Susitna-Watana Hydro delivering power to the Railbelt by 2024.

This summer, AEA conducted a number of preliminary studies near and around the project site. It also filed its Proposed Study Plan with FERC in July, which represents one of the most comprehensive plans of its kind for a new hydro project.

A recent statewide poll showed the majority of Alaskans support Susitna-Watana Hydro. But even with this support, FERC's decision to license the project will be based on science. If studies demonstrate the project can be built and operated safely, with minimal impact to the environment, FERC will likely approve a license. The state and AEA's project team are committed to delivering the benefits of Susitna-Watana Hydro only if it can be done within these parameters.

AEA has made tremendous progress this year, but the project still has a long way to go. And, as many of you who are familiar with the rigorous FERC licensing process know, this project is not a done deal.

Alaska is truly representative of the historic benefits of growth through the use of hydropower as well as its great future potential. The time for Susitna-Watana Hydro has arrived. I am confident this renewable resource project will benefit our children and grandchildren by providing clean, stable and affordable energy well into the next century.

Susan Bell is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. She also serves as vice chair of the board of directors of the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the Alaska Energy Authority (AEA), as state co-chair of the federal Denali Commission and as a member of the Alaska Railroad board of directors.

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