Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Testing the waters — HEA’s proposed hydro projects have years of research to wade through

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining possible Homer Electric Association hydroelectric projects near Moose Pass. Next week’s story will focus on the “low-impact” aspect of HEA’s plans.

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Average Homer Electric Association members, using about 600 kilowatt hours of power a month, could have bought themselves their own little generator with the amount their electric bill has gone up in the past year.

Rate increases in spring, fall and another 20 percent increase set to come in January means electricity on the Kenai Peninsula costs over 8 cents more per kWh than it did at the beginning of 2008, or roughly $50 more a month for an average household. As long as HEA gets the majority of its power from burning natural gas, that trend isn’t likely to change.

What may change is the distribution of HEA’s power supply. About 90 percent of HEA’s power comes through its contract with Chugach Electric Association, which gets most of its power from burning natural gas. As the price of natural gas goes up, so do HEA’s rates, often coinciding with hikes in Enstar’s rates for natural gas heating, as well.

In response, HEA is giving renewed thought to “green” technology.

“We definitely wanted to incorporate some renewables into our energy portfolio,” said Joe Gallagher, HEA spokesman. “The thought was that we were going to pursue the two that were the most developed and ready to go.”

That would be wind power and hydroelectric. HEA, in a partnership with a renewable energy company called enXco, is literally testing the wind and waters of renewable energy on the peninsula. The partnership has three towers up in the Caribou Hills and one near Nikolaevsk to study the feasibility of installing windmills, and is looking at four sites in the Crescent Lake area near Moose Pass as possibilities for hydro projects.

“The goal and the hope for our membership is it will help control rates because now our rates are at the mercy of the price of natural gas,” said HEA spokesperson Joe Gallagher. “The beauty thing about hydro is the fuel price doesn’t change.”

Water works?

As renewable power sources go, wind and hydro are the most feasible for HEA, because they’re the most established, Gallagher said. Harnessing geothermal and tidal power may be options in the future, but they present too many unknowns for HEA to pursue them now.

“We don’t have that capacity at this point, but others do and we definitely keep a close eye on the different developments that take place, and if in fact they prove to be feasible and something happens in one of those areas that makes sense for Home Electric, we are more than willing to take a look at it,” he said.

For the time being, water and wind have HEA’s attention.

“There are many renewable energy sources being looked at now, but Homer Electric, in the big picture, is a small co-op with limited resources,” Gallagher said. “And these hydro projects, they’re renewable but they’re not new. They’re proven technology. We’re not into the research and development phase. We know they work and we can get them online in the foreseeable future.”

Hydroelectric projects have been around for more than a century. The Kenai Peninsula already is home to two hydroelectric sites. Bradley Lake in Kachemak Bay produces about 10 percent of HEA’s power. And Chugach Electric Association runs the Cooper Creek hydroelectric plant near Cooper Landing.

HEA and enXco have teamed up to pursue the possibility of adding up to four more hydro projects on the peninsula. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently approved the necessary permits to study the feasibility of four projects in the Crescent Creek area. HEA also received $50,000 grants from the Alaska Energy Authority for each of the projects to help offset the cost of the preliminary permit work.

The technology exists, similar projects have proven effective elsewhere, and, once built, they would be relatively cheap to operate.

“The real benefit to Homer Electric is it would give us another source of energy other than natural gas, which we’re so heavily dependent on right now. We’ll still rely on natural gas for the majority of our power, but that dependency will be less and we’ll have a greater flexibility,” Gallagher said.

Water running downhill may be inevitable, but the hydro projects are not. They have to prove to be economically feasible and they have to get through the approval process, both at the regulatory level and in the court of public opinion.

The prospect of hydro around Crescent Lake has already garnered opposition from the Friends of Copper Landing organization, even at this preliminary stage where HEA and enXco are just starting to study which studies will need to be conducted.

At issue is hydro’s potential for environmental damage. As a “green” renewable energy source, its reputation can be blackened by environmental damage. In Cooper Landing, the Cooper Creek hydro dam is blamed for the decimation of fish stocks in the creek.
And in the Crescent Lake area, there be fish in them thar streams.

The players

Cook Inlet Regional Incorporated and enXco formed Wind Energy Alaska, which is working on wind projects in the state, including at Fire Island and on the Kenai, said Steve Gilbert, manager of Alaska projects for enXco. HEA formed a partnership with the company, Kenai Hydro LLC, to investigate hydro projects near Moose Pass.

The projects

With three-year FERC permits just recently approved, Kenai Hydro is only a few steps down the road that may lead to hydro projects. HEA and enXco representatives preface comments about design and other project specifics with the caveat that nothing has been decided yet. That being said, here are some of the ideas so far:

The sites being considered — Crescent Creek, Falls Creek, Ptarmigan Lake and Grant Lake — are in the Moose Pass area, part of the drainage system into the Trail Lakes along the Seward Highway.

The hydro designs being considered are low-impact, meaning they don’t involve dams or large structures, and would be designed to not harm the environment or fish habitat, Gilbert said. At least three of them would probably be run-of-river designs, where the stream’s natural water flow is used to generate power, rather than storing water to create a higher flow, Gilbert said.

The prevailing option so far is to install a siphon that diverts water a couple hundred feet down a pipe, called a penstock, into a small power plant. Water runs through turbines to generate electricity and is returned to the stream. Power is run through wires to the existing transmission line along the Seward Highway corridor nearby.

That sort of water conveyance system would involve an intake structure to hold the pipe mouth in place, a duct to divert water into the pipe and a trap to keep branches and other debris out of the pipe. The power plant would be relatively small, access corridors would be built to the plant and the intake site, and power lines would be strung from the plant to the existing transmission line.

Intakes and outlets of the system would be placed to avoid fish habitat, Gilbert said. “There is evidence of natural anadromous fish usage on all four sites, especially down where the creeks empty into Trail Lake, for instance,” Gilbert said.

Another option would be an in-stream system, where turbines are situated in the waterway, water is diverted through the turbine and released back out, with the power plant right there, necessitating only one access road. That may be possible in Falls Creek, for instance, which doesn’t seem to support anadromous — meaning migratory — fish at its headwaters, Gilbert said.

So far, Grant Lake doesn’t seem to support anadromous fish populations, Gilbert said, so they may consider water storage at that site. To do so, a larger structure — but not big enough to qualify as a dam by FERC standards — would be built at the siphon intake across the outlet of the lake, he said.

“Again, it would be the subject of study. If we need to maintain a certain amount of (water) flow past the intake structure down the creek, it ultimately would become a permit condition,” Gilbert said. “If not, the more water that can go to the penstock, the more fuel you can avoid burning, is the bottom line. Every kilowatt hour from wind or water saves a kilowatt hour of burning fuel.”

Along that line, water from nearby Falls Creek could be diverted to Grant Lake to add to the water storage capacity — and, thereby, the power generation capacity — at that site, Gilbert said.

Each site might generate an estimated 4 to 6 megawatts, Gallagher said. By comparison, it takes about 1 MW to power a full-sized Wal-Mart store, he said. HEA’s peak load on a cold day is about 90 MW.

Bradley Lake, which involves a dam, generates 20 MW. Cooper Creek, which also involves a dam, has an output of just under 20 MW, Gilbert said.

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