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Roadless Rule hampers affordable power for Southeast Alaska

  • Author: Crystal Enkvist
    | Opinion
  • Updated: December 12, 2019
  • Published December 12, 2019

Clouds form in the valleys of the Tongass National Forest above Holkham Bay in Southeast Alaska on Thursday, July 19, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Most of the coverage surrounding the proposed exemption of the Tongass National Forest from the 2001 federal Roadless Rule focuses on the timber industry. What’s being left out of the debate is the thousands of Alaskans who must pay for the Roadless Rule through their electric rates.

The U.S. Forest Service’s preferred alternative for the Roadless Rule in Alaska is to exempt the Tongass, returning decision-making authority to its employees on the ground in Alaska. This will allow decisions concerning road construction and roadless area management of the Tongass to be made by local officials on a case-by-case basis.

The Roadless Rule has imposed significant roadblocks and expense to electric consumers in Southeast Alaska due to regulatory barriers on utility operations and hydro power development. Many communities in Southeast Alaska utilize hydro power to produce clean, stable priced electricity, and even more communities are integrating hydro power to lower or eliminate their dependence on diesel generation.

There are many examples from Southeast of electric consumer rates being impacted by the Roadless Rule.

For instance, construction activities for new hydro power plants in Southeast Alaska need road access from tide line to transport materials and equipment. Elimination of surface access under the Roadless Rule has adversely affected the development of future low cost renewable energy resources. If the rule doesn’t prohibit a project altogether, it can substantially increase the time and cost to develop new projects, thus making a project too costly to develop. Alaskans lose out on lower-cost power when regulatory hurdles increase costs to an unbearable level.

The Roadless Rule is also a limiting factor in developing and maintaining reliable electric transmission lines in Southeast Alaska. During one electric utility’s avalanche mitigation studies, it was required to eliminate mitigation options that were dependent on material and equipment access from tide line. Simply being able to pioneer a path for trucks or other vehicles from tide line to the transmission line -- in this case, a distance of approximately 500 feet -- was not permitted under the Roadless Rule, which prevented activities such as developing earthen berms around structures or positioning heavy wire reels for repairing a damaged conductor.

The alternative is to contract an expensive heavy-lift helicopter, which more than doubles the cost of a project and limits design parameters due to the weight limitations of helicopters. In addition, such helicopters are not readily available and potentially extend the period of repair and back up diesel generation. The costs of this are ultimately passed on to Southeast Alaskans in their electric rates.

Without the Roadless Rule, there are still a range of requirements Alaska’s electric utilities must abide by when building hydroelectric or other utility projects. Utilities that construct hydro power projects and associated transmission must abide by significant environmental regulations under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rules and/or state regulations.

Alaska’s electric utilities work hard to provide safe, reliable and affordable power. New investments in renewable energy through hydro power in Southeast are helping high cost areas lower their price of power. The Roadless Rule has not only stifled the speed at which renewable energy has progressed, but it has also negatively and expensively impacted the necessary maintenance that comes with operating an electrical system.

By returning decision-making to local forestry officials, as opposed to a virtual blanket ban on development within the Tongass, the switch to renewable energy will stabilize electric rates and lower our state’s dependence on diesel generation.

Crystal Engkvist is the Alaska Power Association’s executive director. Alaska Power Association is the statewide trade association for electric utilities in Alaska.

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