The new small run-of-river hydropower project on Juniper Creek in Eagle River that was featured in the Anchorage Daily News a few weeks ago is a fine example of responsibly harvesting our local renewable energy potential. Tucked away up in the alpine above fish habitat, this fish-friendly project will benefit our community for many decades to come.
The benefits of small hydro are many. Small hydro provides reliable, baseload, sustainable power. It provides local jobs and long-term it provides low-cost electricity. These projects are extremely long-lived, nominally 50 years, but often far longer. Several small hydropower projects in Alaska have celebrated their 100th anniversaries, often still running on original equipment. Old hydro is the cheapest electricity around, full stop. Bradley Lake, built in the early 1990s and still young for a hydropower project, already provides electricity some 40% cheaper than just the cost of fuel for the new natural gas-fired power plants built in the 2010s.
The Railbelt needs more projects like Juniper Creek. The resource potential is vast. These projects can diversify our energy supply and provide much-needed energy security. In the summer months, a suite of these projects nestled into the foothills and mountains of Southcentral could supply the full energy needs of a utility the size of Matanuska Electric Association, which serves more than 100,000 people in Eagle River north through the Mat-Su Valley.
Unfortunately, in the current business and regulatory climate, these projects only happen when exceptional people cross with exceptional circumstance. In the past 35 years, just three small hydro plants, totaling less than 2 megawatts of capacity — well under 1% of the Railbelt grid’s annual energy demand — have been completed on the entire Railbelt. This rate of hydro investment and development is not a solution, it is barely a footnote. Compared to other locations in the U.S. and even within Alaska, this is not normal.
If a hydro-rich energy future is to ever be realized in Southcentral, our communities need to muster the political will to make it so. This includes regulatory reform to streamline the permitting process for fish-friendly projects, economic reform to recognize the full value these projects bring to our communities, and education to help folks better understand how responsibly developed hydropower is benign and beneficial.
These reforms can be simple measures. Provide fish-friendly Alaska small hydro projects with the same tax and capital incentives as wind and solar projects. Reform power contract price structures to recognize the long-term benefits of hydro including its environmental sustainability and firm capacity. Encourage direct utility investment in hydro. Impose hard decision deadlines on government agencies to prevent multi-decade bureaucratic delays in issuing leases, permits and authorizations.
The rash of new gas-fired power plants that spread across Southcentral and spiraled electricity rates up into the 20-cent-per-kilowatt-hour range is now about a decade old, and two or three decades from needing replacement. If we expect the future to look different than the present, we need to be thinking now about what that future looks like and working now to make it happen. Will Cook Inlet gas still be available, affordable or reliable in 2041? What new costs and burdens might carbon regulations impose on the next generation of fuel-fired plants? New hydro power, by merit of its beneficial long-term economics, low environmental impact, reliable output and local economic benefits, should be one of our top energy priorities. If we want new hydro in our energy future, we need to actively pursue it now by changing our regulatory and business climate. If we do this, people looking back from 2041 and far beyond will thank us for our vision.
Joel Groves, P.E., provided the civil engineering for the Juniper Creek project. He works for Polarconsult Alaska, Inc.; is a member of Fishhook Renewable Energy LLC, which is developing a small hydro project north of Palmer, Alaska; and is the president of the Alaska Independent Power Producers Association. The views expressed herein are his own and not those of Ram Valley LLC, Polarconsult Alaska Inc., Fishhook Renewable Energy, LLC, or AIPPA.
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