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MEA balks at burying power line, warns of Wasilla blackouts

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- Matanuska Electric Association is leaning toward re-routing a new high-voltage power line north of the city rather than follow a pricey city order to bury it along a bustling stretch of the Parks Highway.

Publicly addressing the conflict Tuesday at a Greater Wasilla Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Matanuska Electric's general manager also warned of the remote possibility of rolling blackouts until a new line gets built, implying the city's order could threaten the local power supply.

"I would love not to do that," general manager Joe Griffith said of turning off the lights. "With luck, we will never have a problem with it."

Wasilla's deputy administrator, Bert Cottle, is a regular at Wasilla chamber and sat through Griffith's presentation.

Cottle said it's MEA that's making the connection between the city's "undergrounding" order last year and rolling blackouts. He hasn't heard any grumbling from residents or businesses.

"No one that I know of that lives inside city limits has come in and complained that what we're doing is wrong," Cottle said.

MEA spokeswoman Julie Estey after the luncheon called blackouts a "last resort" and not part of any kind of a public-relations strategy to pressure the city into changing its stance.

"We're a cooperative. We're owned by our members," Estey said. "We're not trying to scare anybody or threaten anybody. We're just trying to communicate the realities."

The Palmer-based co-op serves 59,000 people with more than 4,200 miles of line -- a service area the size of West Virginia that runs from Eagle River to just south of Cantwell.

Officials want a new 115-kilovolt transmission line to connect the new Eklutna Generation Station coming on line in January with a busy substation near downtown Wasilla, where big box stores demand lots of electricity. Planning commissioners last August ordered the line be put underground rather than on 80-foot towers, saying they wanted to safeguard the city's scenery and property values. MEA has said that would quadruple project costs from $10 million to $40 million.

The dispute has already delayed work by a year, Estey said.

The issue resurfaced in late April when a city hearing officer affirmed the planning commission's decision to bury the line.

Griffith said in light of the hearing officer's finding, MEA is weighing four options: burying the line; appealing the decision to the Alaska Superior Court; stopping the project; or re-routing.

He essentially ruled out the "ghastly expensive" option of burying the line on Tuesday, as well as the appeal, saying it would add more delays and probably just put the decision back before the planning commission.

Griffith referenced rolling blackouts during high-demand cold winter nights when he started talking about stopping work on the project altogether, saying that could set up a situation where demand exceeds "safe system limits," especially given the big retailers in Wasilla.

Estey later said the rolling blackouts would be a last resort and in play only during the time it takes to build the new line.

The most likely option, she said, is a new route on the north side of the city in the Bogard Road area.

Griffith said that would cost $10 million more than the original plan along the Parks Highway. He said he plans to ask state regulators for permission to add an electricity surcharge to power bills to "cover this cost of going around the city."

MEA hopes to finish the line next construction season, Estey said. A section from Eklutna to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center is almost done.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com