Juneau utility installs $22 million diesel turbine

Juneau’s privately owned electric utility, AEL&P, has already broken ground to build an industrial diesel plant to meet growing demand. And for the city’s residents that means the price for electricity is likely to go up. Before the development goes any further, some community members are asking the state’s regulatory commission to take a closer look.

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Bryan Farrell, an engineer at AEL&P, holds open the hatch to the diesel turbine. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO - Juneau)
Bryan Farrell, an engineer at AEL&P, holds open the hatch to the diesel turbine. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau)

Bryan Farrell, an engineer for Juneau’s electric utility, asks me to put on a blue hard hat before showing me around his work site.

Construction on the $22 million project began in January. And already, there are two 50,000-gallon tanks installed that will feed a diesel turbine.

“A diesel turbine is exactly what is sounds like. It is a combustion turbine that compresses air, injects diesel fuel as a fuel source and ignites that to turn another turbine which then turns a generator,” Farrell said.

A backup generator, according to AEL&P. It could also run off liquefied natural gas. Something that parent company Avista has been looking at bringing to Juneau.

Right now, on a normal day, the city runs entirely off hydro. But when something goes wrong, like an avalanche takes down a power line, that service can be disrupted. That actually happened in the spring of 2008. And Farrell says when that occurs, the diesel is the backup.

“We have diesel strategically placed throughout the system, and this spot is going to add greatly to that strategy,” Farrell said.

The location for the diesel plant is in a Juneau area called the Mendenhall Valley, and the electric company says growing demand is the reason. In other words, more people powering their homes and businesses in that area.

Farrell says if another catastrophe happened:

“I do not have enough diesel generation in the valley to pick up all the valley in that situation,” he said. “What that would turn into is rotating blackouts for different areas in the valley.”

But Danielle Redmond, a Juneau climate change activist, thinks there has to be a better way.

“Why would we bring in a new fossil fuel monopoly when we have local, clean abundant energy in the form of responsible hydropower?” Redmond asks.

The exhaust stack for the new diesel turbine. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO - Juneau)
The exhaust stack for the new diesel turbine. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO – Juneau)

She sent a letter to the Regulatory Commission of Alaska asking for community input. To pay for the new diesel plant, the electric company will have to increase rates, and that’s when the regulatory commission gets involved.

On top of that, Redmond thinks the diesel plant doesn’t reflect the city’s overall values.

“For me, its more of an issue that if we continue to build infrastructure, we’re not going to make investment in clean renewable alternatives,” Redmond said.

Recently, the city drafted an energy plan outlining goals for moving away from burning fossil fuels, like diesel. But Tim McLeod, AEL&P’s president, says investing in renewable energy for an emergency situation doesn’t make sense.

“First off, diesel generation for backup is a fraction of the cost to our customers as building a new hydro would be,” McLeod said.

In 2010, after the company completed the Lake Dorothy hydro project, McLeod says Juneau’s electric rates went up nearly 20 percent. He thinks backup hydro doesn’t pencil out and would wind up costing customers more. As to how much the diesel plant will raise rates, he thinks it will be “much less” than that.

“But I don’t know what the numbers are,” McLeod said.

AEL&P has yet to file paperwork with the regulatory commission about the rate increase.

For Danielle Redmond, the problem isn’t about being stuck with the bill.

“It may well be the case that Juneau ratepayers would be willing to pay a little bit more for additional hydropower capacity in favor of keeping new fossil fuel projects out of town.”

Redmond says she certainly would. But she might not have much choice in the matter. AEL&P expects to have its new diesel generation plant operational by this winter.