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News-Miner Opinion

Restart the Susitna Dam project: Governor, Legislature must look out for Alaskans’ energy future

News-Miner opinion: The recent Golden Valley Electric Association board of directors election prompted much discussion on this page about electricity rates, with many readers noting that rates here are high compared to other Alaska urban communities.

The campaigns also included talk about the desire for clean energy. GVEA itself has a goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 26% by 2030, as measured against the utility’s 2012 carbon emission goal.

A long-lasting way to achieve that — and more — is for work to resume on the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project.

It’s vital. The dam and hydroelectric system would benefit not only GVEA customers but also customers of utilities elsewhere along the Railbelt.

As proposed, the 600-megawatt project would produce 2.8 million megawatt hours of electricity, enough to provide for 50% of the needs of the Railbelt region, which reaches from Fairbanks to the Kenai Peninsula. The region includes roughly 75% of the state’s population.

Hydropower is clean power. And the estimated life of the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project, which is generally just referred to as the Susitna Dam, is about 100 years.

This is no small project. The dam would be built on the Susitna River, 87 river miles upstream from Talkeetna and, according to the Alaska Energy Authority’s information site, far above the natural impediment to salmon migration that is Devil’s Canyon. The dam would be 705 feet high and create a reservoir 42 miles long and about 1 mile wide.

The project and its potential impact have been studied intensively, on and off, for decades. Many more studies have been proposed by the state energy agency, which is the lead entity on the project.

But in late 2014, former Gov. Bill Walker, just weeks after winning election, suspended spending on the dam and other projects to allow for a review as tumbling oil prices continued to create major budget deficits for the state. In July of 2015, he allowed the project to proceed through 2017, at which time all work was halted.

Then in came new Gov. Mike Dunleavy, who in February 2019 rescinded his predecessor’s stop-work order. That act was only symbolic, however. No additional money was provided for the project.

And that is where things stand today: A project that has been found to be technically doable and possessing enormous potential for the long-term energy security of a large part of Alaska’s population sits idle.

But there are stirrings. Governor Dunleavy’s office has been provided with much information about the project. Several legislators have asked for information. And, importantly, potential investors, who would buy the bonds that would finance the project, have reportedly shown interest.

There won’t be a project for those investors to invest in, however, unless the governor and Legislature agree to provide the money to resume work toward federal licensing of the project.

The Alaska Energy Authority’s required annual update to the Legislature for 2020 notes that the agency is about two-thirds of the way through the federal licensing process. If work had not ceased in 2017, the agency’s update reads, “the next steps for the project would have been implementation of the second study season, followed by preparation of final reports and a license application.”

We have lost years on this project. We can’t afford to lose any more.

As the Alaska Energy Authority points out, “Alaska ranks the fifth highest in U.S. energy costs and remains reliant on volatile-priced fossil fuels.” That’s not good for Alaska, for its businesses or for its residents.

The project will take about eight years to build. Alaskans and their leaders need to be forward-thinking: What will our energy situation be like in the years ahead? Our energy situation for years has been one filled with uncertainty.

We once prided ourselves on being known as the great land of big ideas. Let’s return to that and get on with this project.

Governor Dunleavy and the Legislature need to make the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project a priority and provide funding so work can resume toward obtaining federal approval.

The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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The Daily News-Miner encourages residents to make themselves heard through the Opinion pages. Readers' letters and columns also appear online at newsminer.com. Contact the editor with questions at letters@newsminer.com or call 459-7574.

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