Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Pros And Cons Of The Proposed $4.76 Billion Susitna Dam In Alaska; Alaskans Need To Ask "How" Rather Than Say "Can't"

From the Susitna Project website
Because of delays in getting a natural gas pipeline in Alaska along with an escalating need for energy and a desire for more sources of renewable energy, a large hydroelectric project is being touted for South Central Alaska. According to the official project website, the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project would require building a 750-foot-high dam on the river at the Watana site, far upstream of most known salmon spawning areas. The dam would create a 41-mile-long reservoir with a maximum width of two miles. Energy would be generated using the glacial waters of the upper Susitna River, and transmitted north to the Interior and south to Southcentral Alaska along new and existing transmission lines. In January 2011, Gov. Sean Parnell requested over $65 million and the authority to begin the permitting process, financial plan, and design and engineering. The anticipated cost is $4.76 billion, including licensing and construction.

Advantages as outlined by Hugh Short in October 2011:

-- It would have an installed capacity of approximately 600 megawatts, and would supply half of the Railbelt’s current energy needs at a stable or declining rate for the project life of well more than 100 years. Annual energy output is expected to be 2,800,000 mWh.

-- It would help meet the Alaska State Legislature's stated goal of having 50 percent of Alaska’s power generation from renewable resources by 2025.

-- It would further diversify Alaska's energy sources. Hydroelectric power would effectively complement oil, gas, wind, and even prospective tidal power.

But opposition has arisen. Some of the opponents, like Bill Sherwonit, have an unsavory reputation for environmental extremism. But more responsible opposition has arisen in the person of Richard Leo, who's part of the Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives (Facebook page HERE). On November 22nd, Leo cited some of the prospective disadvantages and problems:

The Susitna Dam at times has to discharge from its 40-mile-long reservoir 400 percent more water in winter than is normal. Water flow out of the dam generates electricity. Winter is when electricity is most needed. That increased flow means salmon juveniles and fry which normally over-winter at the calm edge of the current will have to frantically swim for their lives. The “at times” part is critical because the winter discharge will vary every day as lights come on in the morning and get turned off at night. There will never be a constant steady flow. Young salmon will burn calories trying not to get flushed. If any survive, they will ultimately return to the ocean depleted and under-sized: easy prey.

River ice will also be whacked. Jacking the flow so far up and then down won’t allow for normal freezing. Snowmachines, dogsleds, moose and caribou will be in danger because the ice cover won’t be stable. The river won’t be a safe transportation corridor.

Summer boat access won’t have trusted channels because flows will be below normal. The reservoir has to re-fill and electricity demand in summer is low. Summer recreation is a major part of life on the Susitna.

In addition. Leo maintains that the dam itself will not supply critical heating fuel. In addition, because South Central Alaska is geologically active, the dam must be built to a strong earthquake-resistant standard, preferably to withstand a shaker of up to 8.0 in magnitude for at least two minutes. These are legitimate issues which must be addressed before the project can go forward. The extreme seasonal variability in electricity consumption is an issue that will not go away, since we do need to heat our homes and businesses during the winter, though. This same article was also published in the Anchorage Daily News, attracting 49 comments; some commenters are also concerned the project could turn into another money pit like the Anchorage Port Project.

The Coalition suggests five other alternative sources of renewable energy, but all have their deficiencies:

-- Tidal. But this won't be ready for at least 20 years, and there will be unanticipated problems which will cause further delays.

-- Geothermal. Currently available in some places, but not sufficiently macro-scale. The Chena Hot Springs plant adequately supplies Chena Hot Springs, but not much beyond there. Best used for local limited projects.

-- Wind. The Fire Island Wind Farm is up and running, but wind power depends upon wind blowing. What happens if there is an extended period of no wind?

-- Solar. Seasonal variability; in addition, cloud cover is the norm in Alaska rather than the exception.

-- Energy Efficiency. Right; let's have more low-flow toilets that have to be flushed multiple times to get the stuff down. Let's have more high-priced and potentially hazardous special light bulbs. Give me a break; too many energy-efficient alternatives are too costly and less effective than the superseded technology. I'm not about to freeze in the dark just to reduce energy.

The Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives is right to throw up a caution flag. We can't just go charging blindly into these "hero" projects without considering and addressing all the potential consequences. But there's a difference between being cautious vs. saying "can't". Too many Alaskans are saying "can't" to development, whether it be the Pebble Mine, the Usubelli Coal Mine, or the Susitna Dam. America wasn't built on "can't". These problems should be viewed as challenges to be overcome rather than permanent barriers to development.

To regain credibility, the environmentalist movement ought to be asking "how" rather than saying "can't".



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