Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 1:11 PM on Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Bottom line: HEA Grant Lake hydropower project not needed

Point of View

By Mike Cooney

HEA General Manager Brad Janorschke's dismissive response to a spate of recent letters critical of HEA's misguided scheme to build a hydropower dam on the headwaters of the Kenai River was entirely characteristic of Homer Electric Associations's arrogant approach to the project.

Mr. Janorschke slyly suggested the public should reserve comment on HEA's Grant Lake project until 2013, pending completion of studies because he understands (as do developers of the Pebble Mine and the Chuit River Coal Mine) that state and federal permitting processes exist for the sole purpose of authorizing resource development projects. HEA knows once studies are completed and it can begin shepherding its project through the banal formalities of permitting and licensing, no amount of public opposition will prevent agency approvals to construct the dam.

Unfortunately, as demonstrated by the disastrous impacts to Cooper Creek's salmon and rainbow trout fisheries wrought by the Cooper Lake dam, many of the worst environmental effects of hydropower development are typically not identified, much less publicly disclosed until too late, and many impacts are never successfully mitigated. The Grant Lake dam presents so many tangible risks to other resources and values that it is quite obviously not in the public interest — no amount of studies can turn a bad project into a good one.

The following observations concerning the Grant Lake project are in response to Mr. Janorschke's concern "that the information being cited is accurate":

• The following Alaska Energy Authority (AEA) staff comments appeared in AEA's most recent Grant Lake project evaluation — "AEA has the following concerns about this project:

"1. There is significant public opposition to the project.

"2. We think it's going to cost more to mitigate impacts of features not yet anticipated in the cost estimate, such as i) relocation of the roadway and transmission line due to presence of Iditarod Commemorative trail (currently permitted and under development), and ii) the cost of constructing a new tailrace pond.

"3. We expect that in the FERC licensing process, there will be constraints on the operation of the project that will significantly impact the amount of energy that can be produced. For instance, energy output will be reduced in order to maintain environmental stream flows and lake levels necessary to mitigate impact on fisheries."

• The dam is not needed to meet HEA electrical demand following expiration of HEA's contract with Chugach Electric or required as a source "spinning reserves" — HEA's Independent Light project will supply 206 megawatts (MW), and according to Mr. Janorschke, 118 MW will be available "to provide peaking and reserve power to ensure a high level of reliability on the HEA system."

• The project would supply less than 1 percent of HEA's generation capacity, but is expected to cost 2 ½ times more per MW of installed generation capacity than comparable hydro projects in Alaska, and while HEA claims the project could save up to $41 million in avoided fuel costs, operation and maintenance costs would likely exceed $50 million.

It seems hypocritical for Mr. Janorschke to ask HEA ratepayers and the public to withhold comment until 2013, to wait on studies, and to let the project "stand or fall on its own merits," given that he (with the unanimous blessing of HEA's board of directors) has already requested AEA to provide construction funds for the project — despite the project has not yet been authorized and it would ultimately require all of us to endure the negative environmental, social and economic impacts and to absorb, one way or another, most of the estimated $80 million in development and operational costs over the next 30-50 years.

Mr. Janorschke also conveniently failed to mention that energy conservation is included in HEA's renewable energy portfolio — consequently, conservation measures combined with other renewable energy alternatives, including the East Foreland Tidal Energy Project and the Battle Creek addition to the Bradley Lake hydropower facility might achieve HEA's renewable energy objectives.

At a time when hydropower dams are being removed from rivers in the Pacific Northwest due to their myriad impacts, especially to Pacific salmon and steelhead stocks, and recognizing the Kenai Peninsula's economic dependence on its fisheries, it is obvious to most people that HEA's Grant Lake dam simply should not happen.

Mike Cooney lives in Moose Pass.