Snow River hydropower concept meets immediate skepticism

  • Chugach Electric Association is spending $200,000 this year to study a possible hydropower project that would dam the Snow River on the Kenai Peninsula. The project drew a large, and skeptical audience, at an informational meeting held April 17 in Anchorage. (Map/Courtesy/Chugach Electric Association)

The Kenai River always draws a crowd.

A standing-room only audience of more than 100 gathered April 17 in Anchorage at an informational public meeting put on by Chugach Electric Association to discuss the utility’s concept to dam the Snow River, which feeds Kenai Lake.

The crowd of largely commercial and sport fishermen — sworn opposition in most other settings — peppered Chugach officials with questions regarding the scale of the proposal, how far along the utility is with the idea and what weight their skepticism would carry in the decision-making process.

Several Chugach representatives spoke to the crowd, all emphasizing that the idea is little more than that at this point, as evidenced by the fact the Anchorage utility’s board of directors so far has approved spending just $200,000 to study the concept, according to CEO Lee Thibert.

To that end, Chugach government affairs manager Phil Steyer said the utility is not sure if it will fund the project beyond the $200,000 allocated for this year.

The basics of the proposal entail constructing a 300-foot-high primary dam on the main stem of the Snow River and two smaller auxiliary dams to hold back a roughly 5,300-acre reservoir. That would all be done to feed three electric turbines capable of producing up to 75 megawatts of power.

By comparison, Chugach’s peak load can exceed 400 megawatts during the coldest, darkest winter days.

A rough estimate puts the cost of the Snow River hydro project at between $500 million and $600 million, said Paul Risse, Chugach’s vice president of engineering.

The utility applied for a preliminary permit from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last December.

The commission approved the Federal Power Act Section 4(f) permit March 22. Securing the permit gives Chugach standing with FERC; it allows the utility to study the project for up to three years or more without the worry that another organization will advance a similar hydro project in the area before Chugach can apply for a license to construct the project.

Steyer said the Snow River site — several miles upstream from the Seward Highway bridge where the river dumps into Kenai Lake — would provide for a large enough reservoir to provide power year-round and is closer to existing infrastructure than other hydropower possibilities.

Steyer added that at a minimum the finished project is 10 years out.

“This is a project we’re looking at to meet our commitment to our customers 10, 20, 30, 50 years into the future,” he said.

Particularly in Southcentral Alaska, where utilities currently rely on local natural gas with an uncertain long-term supply, a large hydro project is often as close to an ideal power source as there is. The dams and turbines supply reliable, schedulable power for upwards of 100 years as long as it keeps raining and snowing, with no fuel costs or emissions.

The locale is also upstream of salmon habitat, so it wouldn’t interfere with fish passage, Chugach personnel highlighted.

However, the group gathered at the Lakefront Hotel in Anchorage April 17 was quick to point out the other impacts dams have on watersheds even if they don’t directly impede upstream-bound salmon.

Dams provide a place for sediment to settle, thus changing water turbidity. The impoundments they create typically result in higher downstream water temperatures; and especially on highly variable glacial-fed systems such as the Kenai watershed, they change water flow cycles, which Risse acknowledged.

The latter would be of particular importance on the Snow River, which contains a glacier-dammed lake at the base of the glacier that feeds it. The lake fills and releases remarkably reliably every two or three years in fall in a phenomenon called a jokulhlaup.

The Snow River can rise as much as six feet over the span of a few days when the glacial dam gives way. Risser said how the jokulhlaups would impact the viability of the project is just one of the many things Chugach still needs to study.

“If there’s a negative impact on fishing, it’s not going to happen,” Risser said, noting he among many Chugach employees fishes the Kenai each summer. “We have a personal interest in protecting the Kenai.”

A second meeting was scheduled in Moose Pass April 18.

The Chugach officials stressed the public meetings were the utility’s way of offering full disclosure to its members and the public at large about its activities; they were not mandated by FERC’s permitting process.

Thibert also noted in an interview that in February the Chugach Electric board of directors passed a resolution to adopt the “triple bottom line” decision-making philosophy, which demands all business decisions to not only be economically viable, but also socially and environmentally responsible.

Because of that, Thibert said, if Chugach cannot ultimately get public buy-in on the Snow River hydro project, it will not move ahead with the proposal.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

04/19/2017 - 1:07pm