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What if Alaska tried lots of small energy projects instead of a few massive ones?

John Schandelmeier
OPINION: Maybe to solve its energy crunch, Alaska should shift its thinking from giant, costly megaprojects, like Susitna-Watana dam (illustrated above), to many smaller local projects.
State of Alaska illustration

PAXSON -- It is easy to become entrenched in our thinking. Alaska is an enormous place. We have colossal mountains and big rivers. The tundra and forests seem endless. Alaskans think nothing of a weekend 500-mile round trip to Chitina to dipnet a couple dozen salmon. Think big or stay home.

We have a mammoth oil pipeline. We are deliberating the feasibility of a huge gas project. And we are considering building one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the world. Does the Susitna dam make sense? Maybe we should contemplate more small projects.

The Susitna project can be looked at in many ways as the many op-ed articles pro and con have pointed out. I’d like folks to look at things a little bit differently.

Wildlife habitat is often foremost in my mind. The Susitna dam will draw down a couple hundred feet over the winter months. The peak drop will be in the spring when the Nelchina caribou are migrating to their calving grounds. Our Fish and Game Advisory Committee at Paxson questioned the Alaska Energy Authority about the possible effects of a steeply slanting ice sheet on traveling caribou. We were told that there would not be a slanting ice sheet. “The ice will drop straight down with the water.” Really?

“Stabilizing Susitna water below the dam will help fish.” I don’t believe people along the Columbia or the Fraser rivers would buy that. However, in fairness, neither of these waterways are glacial. There is no doubt the characteristics of the Susitna River below the proposed dam would see major changes. We can probably live with that if the benefits from the power generated are worth the environmental costs. That’s a big “if.”

The Railbelt presently has the lowest power costs in the state at 12 to 14 cents per kilowatt hour in Anchorage and around 30 cents in Fairbanks. The projected power costs for Susitna hydropower may be more or less, depending on whom one listens to. One thing is certain; it won’t help the folks in Tok, Glennallen or Nome.

Eighty percent of Alaska’s population lives along the Railbelt. Unemployment is consistently among the lowest in the state. Meanwhile, the rest of Alaska struggles with extremely high electricity costs and chronic unemployment. The $5.2 billion cost of the dam project equates to between $15,000 and $35,000 per household (depending on how the Susitna project is funded) within the Railbelt area. Fifteen grand will fund nearly all the yearly power needs of a household in Huslia if a good solar system was put in.

Selawik has wind power. Nome is researching geothermal. Glennallen has microhydro potential. Perhaps it’s better to spread those billions of dollars around Alaska to provide sustainable energy for outlying areas. Residents of most of the remote communities depend heavily on subsistence and seasonal employment. A wind generation system in Kotzebue would provide lower-cost power plus some local employment. It is a win-win scenario in a place that needs both.

The Susitna project is expected to employ about 1,000 individuals during construction. Are there enough qualified unemployed in Anchorage to fill that need? I would bet there are plenty of folks in Ambler or Arctic Village who are ready and willing to work on a solar energy venture in their own town.

The benefits of reduced-scale energy projects scattered around Alaska are obvious from an economic standpoint. The spinoff is very little environmental impact. Small, local energy projects also would enhance the rural lifestyle instead of degrading it. A family with one of the adults working may be able to afford $8 per gallon gas in Kobuk to fuel a winter caribou-hunting trip.

We can change our established Alaskan way of thinking. Instead of big; think smaller, think local. On the other hand, as an alternative to a massive Southcentral project, maybe it would be OK to contemplate a full-size project? State of Alaska-size.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.