FALLS CREEK -- At the end of a three-mile road to nowhere, on the southern edge of one of North America's wildest national parks, the sound of a clean, environmentally friendly energy future is drowned out by the noise of a gurgling salmon stream. Just feet to the side of that stream, a hydroelectric turbine for Gustavus Electric Inc. spins in a small metal building not much bigger than a farmland garage.
Any day, salmon will start spawning in the gravels beside the power plant which takes its water from behind a 12-foot cement wall high above two towering waterfalls on a creek that headwaters in the Fairweather Mountains of Glacier Bay National Park, then diverts that water 600 feet downhill through about two miles of buried pipe to generate electricity before putting the water back into the stream at the upper limit of where salmon spawn.
The dream of electrical engineer Dick Levitt, the project is about as environmentally friendly as man can get. There is no towering dam cutting off passage to fish. There are no spinning windmill blades to kill birds. There are no banks of solar cells covering the floor of a valley. And there is, because of this project, no longer an exhaust-spewing diesel generator burning costly fossil fuels in the 400-plus community of Gustavus with a summer population at least twice that.
All it took for Levitt to get this so-called "run-of-river" project built was 27 years of effort, a legal battle with some of America's most influential environmental organizations and, finally, an act of Congress. Gustavus residents who know the 65-year-old Levitt well contend that if he wasn't such a hard-headed old cuss, their green-leaning community built on an old glacial moraine on the edge of the park would still be getting its power from the aforementioned diesel generator.
That generator went silent when the hydropower project went online earlier this summer. Levitt hopes it will sit silently for the next 100 years, though it is being maintained as an emergency backup for community power just in case. Nobody wants to see it run. Along with adding to atmospheric pollution, the generator each month burns about 20,000 gallons of expensive diesel that significantly boosts the cost of power. The fuel alone costs 20 to 44 cents per kilowatt hour, Levitt said.
Water to generate hydropower costs nothing. Although there is a sizable payback required on the $8.1 million investment in infrastructure, the power produced by hydro now costs about half as much as diesel power, and the community is free from the constant threat of electric costs rising as global fuel prices rise.
Some do worry the privately run hydropower project makes Levitt something of a Southeast Alaska energy baron, but they are thankful for cheaper power. Levitt, along with running the electric utility and the local "Petroleum Museum," a fully operational 1930s gas station that serves as both local fuel stop and tourist attraction, is the community fuel distributor. He used to have a corner on that market, but there is now competition.
And Levitt, who has seen an old hydropower dream finally come true, admits to being now more focused on a clean-energy future than a dirty energy past.
"I'm going to start pushing electric cars," he said.
The isolated community of Gustavus, about 50 miles northwest of the capital city of Juneau, is ideally suited to such vehicles. There are only about 20 miles of road, and most of them are pancake flat. Many of the visitors to the inns and lodges that are the mainstay of the local economy get around on bicycles. The main road from the World War II-era airport -- built to help U.S. bombers reach the Japanese-occupied Aleutian Islands -- to Glacier Bay park headquarters at Bartlett Cove is a paved thoroughfare that runs about nine miles smack through the heart of a community where people still live close to the earth.
Gardens abound in summer. Nearby Icy Strait provides fresh seafood almost year round. The Chichagof Islands to the south across the Strait are loaded with Sitka blacktail deer. A few residents still commercial fish, and almost everyone takes advantage of what the environment offers even if they do sometimes have to do battle with the local moose to keep intact the gardens that produce some of tastiest greens in the West.
In part because of this, the Gustavus Inn -- much to the surprise of it owners -- found itself named one of "America's Classics" by the prestigious James Beard Foundation. The New York-based foundation for foodies praised the Inn's "local catches like Dungeness crab, salmon, halibut, and sablefish, as well as produce from the inn's munificent garden ... berries, potatoes, rhubarb, myriad greens, and edible flowers."
When you go to Gustavus, be sure to taste the flowers. Green living doesn't get much greener than that unless, of course, you're eating the flowers in an all-electric community free of fossil fuels. Gustavus is closing in on this, though not even Levitt is quite ready to go all the way. Nobody yet makes a big, battery powered truck for hauling freight, and the owner of Gustavus Electric is a little nervous about mobs of people in the community switching to electricity for heat.
"You can overload the system pretty quickly that way," he said, even if the hydropower plant is now spinning away a lot of surplus power.
"Right now, we're producing about one-third of capacity," Levitt said, "and we could at least double the capacity." Still, he worries about spikes in the winter demand if everyone went to electric heat. Electric cars are better, he said, because people tend to plug them in at night when electric demand drops. He's also encouraging everyone in the community to switch to electricity for cooking and heating water, but even Mr. Electric thinks fuel oil, propane or wood is probably still the best choice for home heating in his community.
Wood -- old-fashioned though it might be -- is a hard fuel to beat in forested rural Alaska. Getting it might sometimes be a lot of work, but there's never a fuel shortage. The same cannot be said of other sources, even generally reliable hydro. Juneau faced an energy crisis in 2008 when avalanches took out the power lines that bring electricity to that electric-dependent community. The city had to go back to its diesel generators, which sparked a fivefold increase in electric bills and forced major energy conservation efforts to prevent an overload on the local grid. As it was, the local utility still came close to needing to implement rolling blackouts to keep electric demand in line with limited electric supply.
The power plant in Gustavus isn't subject to avalanche, nor is the five-mile-long buried power line from the plant to the old diesel facility. But the facility is down in a canyon where it could be vulnerable to landslides. No system of modern power production, it seems, is without complications no matter how convenient some sources of power might seem. Obviously, though, some sources of power are better than others in some circumstances.
"When I started the utility here," Levitt said, "even then I knew there had to be a better way than diesel."
That was back in 1983. It didn't take Levitt long to find the creek in the mountains about five miles west of town with its two big waterfalls. He started talking to the Park Service about a hydroproject in the 1980s. The creeks in question was then within an area designated as national wilderness. Any sort of development in wilderness is prohibited, so the Park Service tried to arrange a land swap with the state. Environmentalists sued.
"They opposed taking lands out of wilderness despite getting better lands back," Levitt said. "They didn't want to set that precedent of taking land out of a wilderness."
Levitt eventually turned to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, a Republican powerhouse in the 1990s, for help. Stevens pushed the Glacier Bay National Park Boundary Adjustment Act through Congress in 1998. The act authorized the swap of park lands around the creek for state-owned land along the Chilkoot Trail in the Klondike Gold Rush National Park and on Cenotaph Island in Lituya Bay on the Gulf of Alaska coast of the Glacier Bay park.
Before the swap could take place, though, the Park Service had to complete an environmental analysis, and Gustavus Electric had to get a permit for its hydropower project from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The environmental assessment concluded the hydroproject wouldn't harm the park. Environmentalists protested again.
They still didn't like the idea of taking lands out of wilderness, something that had never been done before. One of them, Gustavus resident Kim Heacox, admitted he was conflicted. There were those who argued Gustavus could do more with "conservation efforts" than hydropower.
"This was appealed by the Sierra Club twice," Levitt said.
He kept pushing forward despite the protests. Gustavus Electric applied for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission permit in 2001, and finally got it in 2004. "I became a politician," Levitt said. The land exchange became a reality in 2006. All that was left was to arrange financing.
The Denali Commission, a Stevens-created entity dedicated to rural development in Alaska, came through with a $2.8 million grant to help fund the 800 kilowatt power plant. The Department of Agriculture's Rural Utilities Service chipped in another $1.5 million and the state of Alaska $1.45 million.
"We only had to come up with $1.3 million in private debtor equity," Levitt said, "and it's wonderful saving all that diesel."
Now, if only he could get the Park Service turned onto clean energy. Nine miles out the road from Gustavus at Bartlett Cove, the Park Service continues to rely on dirty diesel power for its headquarters and the Glacier Bay Lodge concession. Levitt has offered to finance construction of a power line to connect park headquarters to the small Gustavus grid, but the offer has been turned down. The Park Service doesn't want to pay for a private line.
"What they want to do is put their own transmission line in," Levitt said. There's no telling how long it could take the Park Service to complete the environmental impact statement necessary before construction of a power line along the Glacier Bay road for a few miles from the park boundary to headquarters, or how long it could take to get the Congress to appropriate the money for that line. Levitt said Gustavus Electric has been told not to expect a hook-up for at least five years.
The owner of the Petroleum Museum is not discouraged. He knows first hand how long it takes to go green in the power business. He might well be dead of old age by the time the park hooks up.
"But long after I'm gone," he said, "this will all still be a boon to this community."
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.