Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 6:41 PM on Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Progress made on Susitna project

By Pat Forgey
Morris News Service - Alaska

JUNEAU — The Legislature Tuesday made quick progress on one of the 10 bills still in play during the limited scope of the special session.

Senate Bill 42, funding work on the Susitna Hydroelectric Power Project, passed through several stages of the process, including passage from the Senate Finance Committee, approval on the Senate Floor, and into the House committee process.

The key part of the bill is funding for a big power project on the Susitna River, which could provide decades of dependable and affordable electric power for Alaska's Railbelt.

"Alaskans are waiting for us to move forward on this project," said Sen. Joe Thomas, D-Fairbanks, one of the projects supporters.

The state would build, own and operate the dam at the river's Watana site.

Thomas said the state made a mistake two decades ago when it abandoned work to develop a new hydroelectric dam, but at that time it appeared Cook Inlet was awash in natural gas.

SB 42 only authorized work to begin, but that's key to the project's eventual success, he said.

"This is a big step forward," Thomas said, and Sen. Lesil McGuire, R-Anchorage, called its passage "a great day."

With both supply and prices now uncertain, moving to hydroelectric will guarantee a stable economic future for the region, Thomas said.

Having access to hydro would free the state from concerns about soaring fuel prices for electricity, he said.

"We won't have to worry about the price of some of the commodities called petroleum," he said.

Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said he expected costs of about $30 million a year for several years while development work continues, and then a construction cost of several billion dollars.

SB 42 also includes loans for two power projects in the district of House Finance Committee Co-chairman Bill Thomas, R-Haines.

The Cordova Electric Cooperative's Humpback Creek Hydroelectric Project will get $5 million, while Hydaburg's Reynolds Creek Hydroelectric Project will get $11 million.

Senate Bill 42 passed out of the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, and was approved by the full Senate 20-0.

It was later referred to and passed out of the House Finance Committee, and awaits floor action.

Only those bills identified in Gov. Sean Parnell's special session proclamation can still be dealt with by the Legislature.