The proposal for a massive hydroelectric project on the Susitna river is moving forward. The project has generated a lot of opposition in Talkeetna, the closest community to the dam site. Now a private company is proposing a second, smaller hydro project on the Talkeetna river.
The company is Northwest Power Service, Incorporated. Brent Smith is heading up the Alaska operation, and says that this is the first time that NPSI is proposing building a dam, though it has considerable experience in hydropower.
“Most all of the projects that Northwest Power Service has been involved with in the past is to retrofit existing, federally owned dams in the Lower 48, where we go in and there’s already an existing dam that does not have power generation on it,” he said. “So, what we do is go through a licensing process to retrofit that dam and put power on it.”
The dam that NPSI is proposing would generate 75 megawatts of power, far less than that proposed by Susitna-Watana. It would also have a much smaller footprint than the Susitna project, with a height of 370 feet.
Brent Smith says he believes that there is room in Alaska for the diversification of the power grid. He adds that the location of the Talkeetna dam proposal has a lot to do with proximity to the electrical intertie between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The site is not set in stone, however.
“I’m not going to say, today, that it’s in Talkeetna. I don’t know that, for sure,” Smith said. “What we want to do is take a look at that opportunity, but I am in favor of more of a diversified generation out there, not just one or two very large projects.”
Brent Smith says that he sees the Talkeetna proposal as a way to start a larger conversation about other power sources. He is a proponent of methods that reduce reliance on fossil fuels. In Smith’s eyes, the conversation that is part of any hydro project’s public process could help reveal the best option for the Railbelt.
“My hopes would be that we could spend a fair amount of the time, or the majority of the time, talking about, ‘Is there an opportunity for renewables in the State of Alaska, or are we just going to default to natural gas and diesel?'”
Mike Wood is the chair of the Susitna River Coalition, a Talkeetna-based group that opposes the construction of the Susitna-Watana hydro project. He says that just because hydropower does not use fossil fuel to generate electricity does not necessarily mean it’s sustainable at large scales.
“Overall, this state truly needs to define what good, sustainable hydro is at any level, and the conversation needs to be had, beginning with our state legislature,” Wood said.
Wood says that the proposal put forth by Brent Smith and NPSI, while smaller than Susitna-Watana, still relies on the method of damming a river in order to spin turbines.
“If he wants to start the conversation…about smaller hydro, I would say personally, I believe he could have started it with a more progressive type of hydropower creator.”
Part of the Susitna River Coalition’s reason for opposing the damming of the Susitna River has to do with fish and other environmental concerns. Mike Wood says there are other methods to consider for smaller hydro than, as he puts it, blocking up the river with concrete.
“It’s lake taps; it’s in higher places where anadromous fish haven’t been going. It isn’t ruining a world class salmon river…Trading resources is not what we want to do, here.”
In the end, Mike Wood says the Talkeetna dam proposal will not divert the Susitna River Coalition’s efforts in opposing the Susitna-Watana Project.
The proposal for the Talkeetna dam is in the very early phases.
On Thursday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission sent back NPSI’s permit request, citing a lack of technical details for the proposed structure. Brent Smith says that he is planning on speaking with local community councils, and is open to the prospect of public meetings to discuss non-fossil fuel energy, whether it be in the form of a dam or some other means of generating electricity.