Susitna Dam project doesn't make sense

Richard Leo

The eighth-tallest dam on Earth blasted into Alaska's heart. Dead fish floating down the Susitna River. Big game gone from historic hunting lands.

That's not the promo for a Hollywood disaster movie.

The Susitna dam, the most expensive state-funded project in Alaska's history, would reduce the Susitna River to a drainage canal while the 40-mile-long reservoir filled. The fourth-largest king salmon run in Alaska is on the Su. The dam would produce 280 to 300 megawatts of electricity, a absurdly small amount for the dam's monstrous size. (The Grand Coulee Dam gets 3,000 megawatts.)

Is this making any sense?

Since July 25, when the governor announced the start of the dam project by saying, "It's time to go big or go home," the process has been pushed so fast that most people either don't even know it's happening or don't know what's at stake.

We do need electricity. Are there no alternatives to building the dam?

Look, the Susitna dam's earliest possible completion would be 2023.

• By next year the first two Alaska wind farms will generate 42 megawatts; if seven more were built, the total electricity would equal the dam's for $4 billion to $5 billion less cost.

• In 2019, 50 megawatts from a geothermal development on Mount Spurr are expected; Alaska's geothermal potential rivals Iceland's, where geothermal powers a third of the country.

• A 5-megawatt tidal energy project near Kenai will be online by 2017, with at least 100 megawatts anticipated by 2025; Alaska holds 90 percent of the America's tidal power potential.

• Current studies by the state itself show that 75 to 150 megawatts can be saved just by basic energy efficiency programs like better insulated buildings.

That adds up to more electricity than the unnecessary dam. In addition, the Cook Inlet natural gas that now powers most of the region the dam would serve (the Railbelt, Fairbanks to Homer) holds reserves for at least 100 more years.

But natural gas is not "renewable," like hydro. State policy is for "50 percent renewable energy by 2025." That's a major justification for the dam. Tidal and geothermal and wind are also "renewable." They are the future, like iPods and laptops have become. Massive retro dams, which haven't been built in America for 50 years, are the past, like black-and-white TV.

The state says that the dam will cost "only" $4.5 billion. But out of the other side of their mouths they admit that full transmission line costs haven't been included, nor mandatory "mitigation measures" (meaning compensation for loss of fishing, hunting and tourism ), which could be as much as 20 percent of the dam's cost, nor interest on bonds, nor inevitable cost overruns for so big a project. So call it $6 billion -- though $8 billion to $10 billion is more likely. But even at $6 billion, that's $40,000 for every family in the Railbelt.

That'd buy electricity for a loooong time from any source, even hamsters on wheels.

Is this making even less sense?

The dam site is 45 miles from the Denali fault where a 7.9 quake recently occurred. The world-class big-game hunting area south from the Denali Highway down into the Susitna Valley would be overrun courtesy of the dam's construction roads and camps.

So why is the current state of Alaska administration furiously pushing the Susitna dam? Do we live in Alaska to go with friends and family to magically wild fishing and hunting lands or to a stupendous wall of concrete? If the dam is not absolutely critical for electricity, why would anyone even think of it?

Politics is the answer. Megalomaniacal politics. "Let's go big!"

The other answer is that there is no justification for so completely changing Alaska's identity. We're all about the magnificently wild, not the monstrously crazy. At heart, who would trade "The Last Frontier" for "America's Biggest Dam"?

The final answer is that there are better alternatives than the dam to bring more power at less cost. We don't have to lose our heart.

Richard Leo is an author living in Trapper Creek. More information: