Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Editorial: Image is everything in lead-up to hydro

For Kenai Hydro, the Homer Electric Association partnership that’s pursuing hydroelectric projects in the Moose Pass area, image is just about everything when it comes to gaining public support.

That’s why invoking the Low-Impact Hydropower Institute is a powerful sign. It’s an independent, well-respected organization that certifies certain hydropower projects as “low-impact,” meaning they meet stringent criteria meant to ensure protection of fish and wildlife habitat, recreation and historic interests.

Kenai Hydro has included the LIHI logo in its presentations and started off saying it intended to apply for certification for its projects. At recent meetings in Cooper Landing and Moose Pass, however, they’ve said they’re not eligible because the LIHI doesn’t certify new projects built after 1998. But they still use the logo and say they’ll follow the LIHI’s guidelines to create low-impact projects.

The change caused some raised eyebrows. In Cooper Landing, a resident requested that Kenai Hydro stop using LIHI’s logo because it creates the false impression that the organization has some involvement or association with the group, with is not true. In Moose Pass, Bruce Jaffa said he’s concerned that Kenai Hydro didn’t get all this straightened out before they started telling the public about it.

“I think it was a little wishful thinking that they could include that,” he said. “When you see a drastic change like that early on it gives you some reason to wonder why it wasn’t caught earlier.”

Fred Ayer, executive director of the LIHI, said he hasn’t been contacted by HEA or Kenai Hydro and that, “If they are using our logo, they are using it without our permission and in a way that certainly could confuse stakeholders.”

Ayer said the group’s focus is dams, and it does not support the construction of new dams, which is why it doesn’t certify new hydro dams built after 1998 — the year before LIHI was formed. But it is considering new, nondam technology for hydro and plans to create criteria for certifying new facilities. Kenai Hydro is planning dam structures.

If Kenai Hydro’s mistake in being ineligible for LIHI certification was a simple oversight, that’s one thing. But to know they don’t qualify and still use the LIHI image gives the impression of an association that doesn’t exist. It’s laudable and responsible for Kenai Hydro to want to follow the low-impact criteria, but without the LIHI having a say in whether they’re actually following it or not negates the whole purpose of the certification. Who is Kenai Hydro to say its creating low-impact projects along the lines of LIHI, without an impartial viewer checking to verify the claim?

Facts, figures, schematics and all the technical data that will come from environmental and design research will matter most to regulators in deciding whether to grant approval to build the projects — whether it’s one or all four, the way they’re envisioned now or in some revised state.

That information will matter to folks keeping close tabs on the development of the projects, too, but in this early stage of the process, when first impressions can lead to knee-jerk reactions of support or opposition, appearance reigns supreme.

Kenai Hydro needs to show it’s concerned about the environment it’s looking to alter and that it cares about protecting fish and wildlife habitat, recreational uses and scenic beauty. Maybe not as much as area residents do, because playing the “I hike up there once a year” card won’t win any credibility with locals, but at least enough to make people believe they’ll do what they can to minimize impacts from the projects.

Kenai Hydro’s desire to be low-impact is important and following the guidelines of the LIHI of its own accord is admirable, but to use the group’s name and logo to lend credibility to its projects, when in fact there is no association, just plain looks bad.

And that’s the wrong image to create.

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