OPINION: Susitna Dam isn’t Alaska’s energy solution

Amid state legislation hearings flush with Cook Inlet natural gas supply shortage presentations and bills calling for more “clean” energy alternatives, at a 2024 cost of $7.2 billion, the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project (Susitna Dam) is once again being considered as a solution to Alaska’s energy challenges. Wayne Dyok’s opinion piece from April 4 rebranding the Susitna Dam as an “environmental project” doesn’t suffice overcoming any valid public concerns about the detrimental impacts it will cause our communities.

This massive 705-foot, 42-mile river-stopping reservoir would be located 87 miles north of Talkeetna on the Susitna River, disrupting the 15th-largest river in the U.S. and home to the fourth-largest king salmon population in Alaska. In an era where large hydroelectric dams in the U.S. are being decommissioned to reverse the damage they’ve caused to rivers and ecosystems, considering the construction of a dam of this magnitude to “combat climate change” is illogical. In fact, $800 million of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding has been allocated for dam removal initiatives, with groups like American Rivers setting goals to remove 30,000 dams by 2050 to mitigate serious ecological harm caused by river disruption.

While Dyok claims that hydro projects are carbon-neutral and benefit the environment, dams are not clean energy sources. Reservoirs emit methane, a potent greenhouse gas, due to the decomposition of organic matter in reservoirs. This would significantly offset any potential carbon emissions reductions claimed by the project. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now includes reservoir emissions in their greenhouse gas reports.

Dependence on a single massive renewable energy project like the Susitna Dam carries significant energy security risks. As highlighted by engineer Bob Butera (an engineer who worked on the Dam project in the 1980s), relying solely on one large hydroelectric project that can’t easily adjust to changes in demand is precarious and potentially catastrophic. The Site C Dam project in British Columbia Dyok mentions as a learning tool, is much more of a wake-up call to never invest in a mega project rather than simply take notes from it. Nearly doubling in budget from its original price tag to $16 billion by 2021, their project will flood 30,000 acres of farmland, wildlife habitat, and hunting and fishing grounds.

A new National Renewable Energy Lab cost analysis, released this March, reports that 76% of renewable energy generation on the Railbelt can be reached by 2040 with mostly new wind and solar projects, resulting in a savings of about $1.8 billion total compared to a scenario with no new renewables added. The research confirms that opting for the least expensive approach to broaden the state’s energy portfolio negates the need for a disastrous hydroelectric project like the Susitna Dam. Advocating for the Susitna Dam by marketing it with unestablished technology such as hydrogen and impractical solutions such as using the reservoir for salmon breeding, are a distraction from moving forward with already proven, cost-effective renewables.

As Alaska moves forward navigating complicated energy issues, it’s imperative to conduct comprehensive environmental assessments, engage dialogue and amplify community concerns, and explore alternative approaches that prioritize less expensive, risky and harmful pathways to decarbonization. Above all, the Susitna Dam would embody the immense alteration of Southcentral Alaska’s river life, its economy and ecology, the eradication of its unique ecosystems, and the destruction of one of Alaska’s most valued salmon spawning and rearing habitats, while costing the state billions of dollars that could instead be used elsewhere.

June Okada is the energy coordinator for the Susitna River Coalition, a group dedicated to keeping the Susitna River communities and watershed thriving.

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