EKLUTNA -- For the first time in its 74-year history, Matanuska Electric Association is on its own.
The Palmer-based electric cooperative became "self-generating" at midnight May 1, when the new $324 million Eklutna Generation Station started cranking out power.
The 171-megawatt power plant sits on industrial property purchased from Eklutna Inc. between the Glenn Highway and the Chugach Mountains near the Alaska Railroad tracks. Just on the other side of a fenced switchyard sits Anchorage's original 1907 power plant, still bearing the faded letters "Anchorage Light & Power Co."
MEA is generating electricity with Cook Inlet natural gas purchased from Hilcorp. The new utility also gets about 20 percent of its power from hydropower projects -- big ones like those at Bradley Lake and Eklutna but also small in-river projects on South Fork Eagle River and McRoberts Creek near Palmer.
MEA's groundbreaking jump to utility was supposed to start in January but project delays prompted a short-term interim sales agreement with Chugach Electric Association to purchase output. Chugach will continue to provide power and natural gas routing service for at least another year, according to MEA.
The 10 engines at Eklutna operate on a "load following" model that gives MEA -- and Railbelt utilities -- new flexibility to respond to demand as it cycles up and down, co-op officials say. The plant's location also builds new redundancy into the Valley's power system; if one segment goes down, MEA can still feed electricity along another route.
Progress isn't free: A typical MEA member saw an average rate increase of 26 percent last year and so far this year, according to spokeswoman Julie Estey. Most of that stems from the Hilcorp gas purchase and higher Chugach-purchased power costs. The Regulatory Commission of Alaska will rule on future rates for the rest of 2015.
The project came within 10 percent of original MEA estimates but those were big numbers to start with. The co-op board in 2013 authorized a total project estimate of $304 million but later approved a 10 percent contingency. As of last year, the total was $324 million and final costs are expected to stay within 10 percent of that original estimate, Estey said.
MEA serves more than 100,000 Alaskans, largely residential customers, from Eagle River to the South Denali area up the Parks Highway. The public is generally not given access to the plant -- a Doyon Universal Services security guard stands watch at the gate -- but an upcoming open house will offer a rare peek inside. The event will run from 1 to 4 p.m. June 6, with tours every 15 minutes for people using a registration link at the MEA website.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the timing of an open house. The event ends at 4 p.m.