With rain in the forecast, Ketchikan switches back to hydroelectric power

Rain gear proved useful in Ketchikan back in 2017, when rainfall easily broke the previous summertime record. This year has been much drier, causing problems for the hydroelectric-dependent Ketchikan Public Utilities. (Photo by Leila Kheiry/KRBD)

Following an extremely dry summer (by rain forest standards), October in southern Southeast Alaska started off equally dry. But, the second half of the month has brought enough rain that Ketchikan’s electric utility is switching off its diesel generators, at least for the moment.

October is usually one of the rainiest months in rainy southern Southeast Alaska. Ketchikan sees an average rainfall of about 20 inches in October.

This year, though, it was more like 11 inches – and most of that fell in the second half of the month. That was enough, though, for Ketchikan Public Utilities, or KPU, to give its diesel generators a much-needed break.

“We produced about 8.8 gigawatt hours of diesel, and burned through a little over half a million gallons of fuel, just for October,” said Andy Donato, KPU Electric Division manager.

He said KPU’s hydro-producing lakes have hit the low end of their target elevation, so KPU is going to turn the hydro back on.

He’ll feel more comfortable to see those lake levels rise more – and soon. And the forecast for the next few days does call for plenty of rain.

In Donato’s job, rain is a blessing.

“Two days ago, I got absolutely soaked. I had to work some outside. I got absolutely soaked, and I was smiling through the whole thing,” he said. “It’s a different perspective, right? When you desperately want the rain.”

Switching back to hydroelectric power is good news for KPU customers who pay a diesel surcharge when the utility needs to run its more-expensive backup generators.

But, while the rain appears to be back, the area remains in a drought.

“Ketchikan should be getting around 19 inches of rain in October. And this is the panhandle’s wettest time of year, that with September. However, you are just around 60 percent of that, which is not even beginning to crack anything on the drought,” said Wes Adkins, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Juneau.

He said this October is the area’s eighth driest on record. Those records go back about 100 years.

Adkins said the forecast now indicates a more normal weather pattern for the area, so that means the rain should stick around for the next month or so.

Rick Fritsch is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Juneau. He said we’re headed into an El Nino winter.

“For us here in Southeast Alaska, that usually translates into a warmer-than-normal winter, so that’s bad for the snow at a higher elevation, but in this particular case it also looks like it’s going to be a wetter-than-normal winter,” he said. “So, that will give the various power providers and the rain forest an opportunity to recover this winter.”

Fritsch studies long-term trends to get the bigger climate picture for Southeast. He said Ketchikan has seen a lot of variability in precipitation over the past 16 years.

Looking at the summer months of June, July and August, he pointed out repeated instances of soggy summers followed by extra-dry ones.

The most recent example is this summer.

“Only 12.48 inches,” Fritsch said. “Now, 12.48 inches rivals the record for lowest summertime precipitation. And the funny thing is the previous summer of 2017 was the wettest summer on record. So, huge extremes going on in the southern Panhandle.”

That’s not a problem when the extreme is wet, he said, because rain forests are supposed to be wet. When it’s dry, though, things get tricky.

“It affects the power, it affects the rain forest, it affects the salmon. It affects a lot of things in a very negative fashion,” Fritsch said.

Fritsch said climate change could be a factor in this precipitation variability. The long-term trend has shown an increase in rain over the last 30 years. And he said warmer and wetter weather is something predicted by climate change scientists.

That isn’t necessarily bad news for the Ketchikan area, which has always received more rain than snow anyway. Go a little further north, though, and even a slight shift in temperature can make a big difference.

“An average temperature that hovers right around freezing, and the average temperature rises,” Fritsch said. “You very quickly go from snowfall measured 84 to 94 inches a year to snowfall measured 60 inches a year.”

That means less of a snowpack in the mountains, which means less “stored water” that melts slowly and fills up an area’s lakes during the drier months.

Snowpack is a potential concern for the Ketchikan area this year, too. If the long-range forecast of a warmer, wetter winter pans out, there might not be much of a snowpack for spring and summer.

But KPU’s Donato said for the moment, he just wants rain.

“I’ll worry about spring in spring,” he said. “But right now we’re desperate. We’ve got to make sure we get some of that into the reservoirs.”

Because once it starts snowing, the precipitation is locked up in solid form until the weather warms up. If the lakes are still low when that happens, Donato said, KPU will have to again switch on the backup diesel generators.

KPU’s diesel generators have been on 24/7 since mid-October, and already had been running five days a week for several weeks before that.

Donato said the diesels will be switched off Friday evening. After a full weekend on hydro, Donato said KPU officials will evaluate lake levels on Monday and decide whether they can continue with full-time hydroelectric power.