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Bigger isn't alway better when it comes to energy in Alaska

John Schandelmeier
The Susitna River below the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project on the Susitna River north west of Talkeetna. The dam site is at mile 184 of the Susitna River. BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

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 Chitna 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, though?  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 (AEA) 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,” adds the AEA.  I don’t believe people along the Columbia or the Fraser rivers would buy that notion. 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.”

At least $15,000 per household

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 of 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 of the yearly power needs of a household in Huslia, a village of nearly 300 people north of Galena on the Koyukuk River, if a good solar system was put in.  

Selawik, a town of more than 800 people in Northwest Alaska, has wind power. Nome is researching geothermal. Glennallen has micro-hydro 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.  

Think smaller, local

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 town.  

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

We can change our established Alaska way of thinking. Instead of big, think smaller, think local.  

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 International Sled Dog Race.