Costly Southcentral power line outage repaired
(Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Homer Electric Association and the latest figures of costs incurred to utilities.)
A power line that links the majority of Alaskans to low cost hydropower is back in service after a four-month outage that cost impacted ratepayers more than $11 million.
Chugach Electric Association announced Dec. 19 that the roughly 55-mile segment of electric transmission line on the Kenai Peninsula between Soldotna and Cooper Landing was re-energized and began sending power north earlier in the day.
It had been out of service since mid-August when high winds and drought conditions caused a then-resurgent Swan Lake wildfire to burn through the power line corridor and damage a handful of wooden power poles and guy wire supports.
Dubbed the “SQ line” for its route between Soldotna and a substation at Quartz Creek, the 115-kilovolt line links utilities in Anchorage, the Mat-Su, Fairbanks and Seward to the Bradley Lake hydroelectric project located across Kachemak Bay from Homer.
With the SQ line down, the utilities were forced to substitute the normal supply of Bradley Lake hydropower with higher cost power generated from natural gas. The SQ line outage collectively cost Southcentral and Interior ratepayers roughly $11.8 million due to the more expensive power source, Matanuska Electric Association CEO Tony Izzo said Dec. 20.
"I'm just happy that it's back on and we're taking all the (Bradley Lake) power that we can," Izzo said.
Bradley Lake supplies up to 10 percent of the electricity needed by Alaska’s Railbelt utilities. At 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, the hydroelectric dam can produce power for about half the current cost of natural gas-fired generation and is some of the lowest-cost power in the state, according to the Alaska Energy Authority, which owns Bradley Lake.
Customers of Chugach Electric Association paid an extra $2.7 million in generation fuel costs during the four-month outage, according to the statement from the Anchorage-area utility. Chugach expects it will fully recover the added fuel cost through slightly higher rates by the end of the first quarter of next year.
Bruce Shelley, the member relations director for Homer Electric Association, which owns the SQ line, wrote via email that the Kenai Peninsula utility replaced eight poles along with several insulators and guy wires.
A spokesman for HEA said Dec. 9, when the repairs were beginning in earnest, that the utility had identified seven poles that needed to be replaced before the line could be re-energized.
At the time, the work was expected to take at least two weeks if crews didn’t discover any other damage. Discussion in public meetings among other utilities was that as many as 14 poles could have been compromised by the fire.
However, the initial estimates were based on observations from helicopter flyovers and HEA's contractor found there to be less fire damage than was originally thought, according to Shelley.
HEA officials said in early December that the work to repair the line had been slow going for a host of reasons and crews couldn’t just rush into the area as soon as the fire was largely suppressed in early September.
Localized hot spots and ash pits continued to smolder and posed a danger to electric crews working in the area long after fire crews and September rains doused most of the flames.
The portion of the line that was damaged is in a portion of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge west of Cooper Landing near Jean Lake that is a challenging mix of wetlands and mountainous terrain.
HEA officials also told their counterparts at other utilities in early December public meetings that windstorms around Thanksgiving caused significant power outages on the Kenai Peninsula that diverted crews’ attention away from the SQ line.
While HEA built and owns the SQ line, it is on the northern edge of the utility’s service area and does not provide power to HEA customers. The whole situation spurred talks about the Alaska Energy Authority purchasing the SQ line from HEA, according to leaders of the utility and state-owned authority.
AEA Executive Director Curtis Thayer said the authority purchasing the SQ line — it also owns the state-funded Alaska Intertie transmission line between Willow and Healy — could be the first step towards investing in upgrades to it.
Thayer initially said he hopes to conclude those discussions with HEA leaders by late January.
Utility cooperation agreement
The SQ line is one of several transmission segments between Bradley Lake and Fairbanks without any backup, or redundancy, and capacity-constrained transmission lines have long made maximizing the use of Bradley Lake’s cheap power a challenge that was elevated by the Swan Lake fire damage.
Utility leaders and Regulatory Commission of Alaska officials have for years discussed and debated the need to invest in upgrading the Railbelt electric transmission system, but finding equitable ways for the utilities to pay for the costly projects is a hurdle that has yet to be cleared.
To that end, it was announced Dec. 19 that the leaders of the six Railbelt utilities have signed a memorandum of understanding to work towards forming a Railbelt Reliability Council, or RRC, as a means to set operating and capital projects standards across the region and increase economics-driven power generation dispatch across the region.
The RRC would operate as a standalone, not-for-profit organization governed by a 13-member board with members from each utility, stakeholders and the organization's CEO, according to the MOU. Several prior attempts to form a similar organization following the RCA's initial demand in 2015 for increased operational alignment between the Railbelt utilities have floundered for a host of reasons.
It remains to be seen if the latest agreement will lead to the substantive reforms in the Railbelt that the RCA has called for. However, stakeholders note that bills pending in the Legislature with bipartisan support to in-part give the RCA increased authority over Railbelt utility operations could be the impetus for solidifying action following the latest conceptual agreement.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].