Juneau Assembly supports Juneau Hydropower plan

JUNEAU — The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly has pledged its support to Juneau Hydropower Inc.’s $25 million district heating plant proposal, which company officials said will keep heat prices low and carbon emissions lower.

At a Feb. 22 Assembly work session, Juneau Hydropower CEO Keith Comstock and Duff Mitchell, the company’s managing director, pitched their plan to use water from the Gastineau Channel to heat Downtown Juneau. They didn’t ask for much in return.

“We’re asking for your love, tenderness and cheerleading support,” Mitchell said, channeling his inner Michael Bolton and eliciting a few chuckles from Assembly members and onlookers alike.

Mayor Mary Becker showed the Juneau Hydropower some love when she moved that the Assembly write a letter of support for the plan. The rest of the Assembly turned on the tenderness when it voted, without objection, to pass Becker’s motion, but not before Assembly member Debbie White gave Comstock and Mitchell her cheerleading support by amending Becker’s motion, clarifying that it would be a “strong letter of support.”

Boasting their district-heating plant’s 300 percent efficiency rating and its ability to reduce Juneau’s dependence on fossil fuels and outside markets, Comstock and Mitchell won over some of the Assembly’s toughest critics, such as Jerry Nankervis.

“In the four years I’ve been hearing about this project, I’ve yet to hear anything about it that I don’t like,” Nankervis said after the pitch.

With the Assembly at their backs, Comstock and Mitchell have to finish answering the four major questions that Comstock said need to be resolved in order to get the project going. They’ve already answered the first two: both think the project is both economically feasible and marketable.

Now they need to finish getting their equity in order and securing financing, according to Comstock.

“This is a large project so there’s a large amount of equity that has to be put down,” he said noting that Juneau Hydropower has friends on Wall Street ready to invest in the project. As for the financing, Mitchell and Comstock said they are looking for a low-interest loan from the federal government, and they are getting “strong signals of support.”

“We wouldn’t be here talking to you if we didn’t intend to go into construction, and in order for that to happen we have to have all of these things in place,” Comstock said.

Juneau District Heating’s system would take electricity from Juneau Hydropower’s Sweetheart Lake facility about 40 miles south of the city to power heat pumps in Gastineau Channel that “scavenge” the thermal energy in the seawater and transfer the heat to water in network of pipes used to deliver the heat to homes and businesses.

It is essentially the same process used in large-scale refrigeration, except the heat is trapped as a valuable resource rather than being collected and dispersed as waste.

The City of Seward is also investigating the potential of sourcing its heat from Resurrection Bay.

The science behind the renewable energy is nothing new; it’s already being used on a smaller, and cooler, scale to heat the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward and the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau.

At more than 180 degrees Fahrenheit, the district heat loop would run hotter than the systems used at the Sealife Center and Marine Research Institute. With two water lines, that hot water can simply be put hooked up to and replace a fuel oil-fired boiler system, which 78 percent of Juneau’s buildings, including Downtown state facilities, use for space heat.

Juneau Hydropower estimates the cost to switch from fuel oil heat to the district heat system to be in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars — less than switching to natural gas.

Information from a previous Journal article by Elwood Brehmer was added to the original story.

03/02/2016 - 2:48pm