Here’s how a Kenai Peninsula wildfire could cause higher electric bills in Anchorage and Fairbanks

Firing operations conducted by fire crews north of the Sterling Highway and transmission lines. (Photo courtesy Alaska Division of Forestry)

The Swan Lake wildfire on the Kenai Peninsula could cause Anchorage and Fairbanks residents’ electrical bills to go up, due to damaged transmission lines that carry power to those cities from a major hydroelectric dam near Homer, officials said.

The transmission lines were shut off in mid-August at the request of the team managing the crews fighting the wildfire, which is 35 miles wide and has burned more than 250 square miles since it started in June. Cory Borgeson, chief executive of the Fairbanks-based Golden Valley Electric Association, said he’s concerned the lines may not be fixed for months — possibly even until next summer.

“From the folks that have had a cursory look at the line, there’s significant damage, poles that have been burned and the like,” Borgeson said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Borgeson said he learned about the damage from Brad Janorschke, the manager of Homer Electric Association, which owns the roughly 15 miles of transmission lines exposed to the fire.

The Bradley Lake dam is 125 tall, and it’s about 25 miles from Homer. (Photo by Quinton Chandler/KBBI)

Janorschke was out of the office this week and couldn’t be reached for comment. But HEA spokesman Bruce Shelley said that the member-owned cooperative needs the fire to die down before it can fully assess its infrastructure.

“I’m no expert in the area, but I can’t imagine we’re not going to have some damage to the line,” he said. “As soon as they give us the green light to go and inspect this and assess the damages, we will be Johnny-on-the-spot.”

The damaged power lines connect the population centers of Anchorage, Fairbanks and the Mat-Su with the 125-foot-tall Bradley Lake dam, at a remote site near Homer. The project was built in the 1980s for more than $300 million, and it has a 120-megawatt capacity — enough to supply power for tens of thousands of homes. It produces up to 10 percent of the railbelt’s power needs.

The dam, which is being expanded, is among Alaska’s cheapest power sources. To replace the hydroelectric power, utility managers said they have to use more expensive sources, like natural gas or oil. And that means customers’ bills are likely to rise later this year.

How much? It’s a little too early to say exactly, though it’s unlikely to be a major increase, utility officials said.

“Any time you’re replacing hydro power with natural gas, you’re going to see that increase, and especially with the number of days that have gone by as this fire has burned,” said Julie Hasquet, spokeswoman for Chugach Electric Association, the Anchorage-based cooperative that gets about one-fourth of its power from Bradley Lake.

But, Hasquet added, “We won’t know the impact until we’re through this entire process and have an opportunity to work with Homer Electric Association to assess the damage.”

One data point comes from Matanuska Electric Association, a cooperative that serves some 50,000 members in the Matanuska and Susitna river valleys. The utility has spent a total of some $408,000 to replace power it would have used from Bradley Lake during the current outage and a previous, three-week shutdown in June and July, according to spokeswoman Julie Estey.

The daily cost of the outage is roughly $12,000, which will have to be paid by MEA’s customers, she said. She added that those costs will not be shared equally, however, since some buyers, like businesses and the local school district, purchase larger quantities of power than homeowners.

Firefighting officials said they are trying to facilitate utilities’ access to the transmission lines as soon as possible. But in part because of the fire’s massive size, “we still have some mop-up and some containment to do that is in the areas where the transmission lines travel,” said Jeremy Robertson, liaison officer with the fire management team.

“We’re doing everything we can to make them accessible to the people who operate and maintain those lines,” he said. “We continue to update and collaborate with Homer Electric Association daily — we’re in almost constant communication with them. And it is our priority to try to open up the infrastructure.”