This week, the Alaska Energy Authority held public meetings in the Upper Valley and Anchorage to discuss the plans for the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project. In addition to AEA’s updates on the progress and plans for the megaproject, opponents to the dam expressed continuing concerns.
Both the Talkeetna and Anchorage meetings began with a presentation by Wayne Dyok, Project Manager for Susitna-Watana. He says that the Susitna Dam remains a key part of the state’s goal for fifty percent of Alaska’s energy to come from renewable sources by 2025. Wayne Dyok says that, while AEA is interested in wind and other alternative energy projects, that the large dam would provide stability to the overall grid.
“Without having some kind of resource, like a hydro, it’s difficult to put that into the system and still have a stable electric system. We also want reliable energy, and sustainable energy, and energy that’s clean.”
Wayne Dyok says that the Susitna-Watana Project would also have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
“Susitna-Watana would displace about 1.3 million tons of CO2, annually. That’s actually a pretty significant number. That’s equal to the emissions of about half the cars that are registered in the State of Alaska.”
AEA refers to Susitna-Watana as, “Clean, reliable energy for the next 100 years,” on nearly all of its distributed materials. It also claims that the long-term price of energy would stabilize, then drop with Susitna-Watana. AEA’s estimates show the cost of natural gas generation catching up to the price of power from the dam about twelve years after completion, in 2036. It says the price of power from Susitna would then drop sharply in 2052, after the project would ostensibly be paid off.
Those cost estimates have met with some challenge, however. In 2012, Dr. Steve Colt, of the Institute of Economic Research at the University of Alaska in Anchorage said that the initial cost of power when the dam comes online will be significantly higher than what AEA estimates. That study was brought up at the Talkeetna meeting. Wayne Dyok says that the different results are a product of different assumptions regarding the financing of the project.
“We looked at his study, and we looked at some of the assumptions that he did. We gave him our information, so he actually has what we put–and the model should give you the same thing. If you put the same inputs, the model should be the same.”
Many of the comments from the crowd of eighty-plus in the Upper Susitna Valley centered around environmental concerns. Fish habitat, seismic activity,caribou migration, and other topics that have consistently been brought up as concerns were reiterated by residents of the communities that would be downstream from the project if it is built. Many of those questions were answered by the members of the project team that were also in attendance.
A few members of the audience also challenged the reliability of the material that AEA is sending to the general public. One those is Molly Wood, a member of the Chase Community Council. She specifically referenced a graphic that shows fish passage up to and beyond the proposed dam site. She says the way the information is presented is incomplete and misleading.
“That really makes it looks like there aren’t any fish in this river, and you know–you’ve had much feedback, already. That continues to show up at all of these meetings, and it’s being sent out in pamphlet form all over Alaska. It misrepresents the results of your studies, number one, and you’re drawing very premature conclusions about potential impact.”
Other members of the audience, such as Ellen Wolff, challenged the fact that they see AEA as promoting the dam’s environmental impact and utility as a foregone conclusion as opposed to coming to a decision after all of the studies have been completed. Her view is that advertisements and other materials are more sales pitch than science.
“[You] put it in all the newspapers, and it must have been very expensive. They made the public think like this was a done deal. It’s very promotional. That was not waiting for the data. You have fancy little water bottles that say “SuWa.” You’re doing these meetings that, to me, seem promotional.”
Wayne Dyok says that AEA is using those tools primarily as a means to convey information to the public, and that all of the current study data is available in the Initial Study Report released this Tuesday. That report includes over 8,600 pages of information from the fifty-eight studies required by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
At a similar meeting on Wednesday in Anchorage, AEA faced many of the same environmental questions as in Talkeetna from an audience of about fifty. Nobody in the audience rose to speak in favor of the megaproject at either meeting.
AEA plans to conduct studies this summer, despite budget cuts, and field work is scheduled to continue through 2015. If all goes to plan, construction would begin on the project in 2019. That is all contingent on receiving the $90 million in funds that AEA says are necessary to complete the pre-licensing process. With legislative attention shifting to a gas pipeline, and with the project receiving less than half of the total funds requested by Governor Sean Parnell this year, however, that is far from a certainty.