Alex Gimarc: Alternate energy sources for the Railbelt

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By ALEX GIMARC

Given the ongoing discussion about renewables forced by the Alaska Center (for the Environment) and Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP), I thought it useful to explore or remind readers of previous energy proposals briefly considered and discarded on our way (however unwillingly) to a “net-zero” future.  

On the generation side, there are a pair of recent hydro proposals. One takes water from Lake Chakachamna across Cook Inlet.  The other is a dam across the Snow River above Kenai Lake. Either or both would provide constant, reliable, renewable, carbon free electricity to the Railbelt.

The proposal for power at Chakachamna is similar to that of Eklutna Power Station: Drill a tunnel that taps the main lake, pipe water 12 miles through the mountains, and use it to run a power station. TDX Power applied for a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission license in 2006. The proposed power station is 330 MW, about a third of total Railbelt generation needs today. The cost as of 2008 was $1.7 billion. This has been studied since at least 1983.  

A second hydro project was a 2017 proposal by Chugach Electric for a 75 MW series of dams across the Snow River above Kenai Lake.  The project was dropped in the face of public opposition by locals in Moose Pass and Cooper Landing.  

Note that the original reason for dams was flood control. The Snow River regularly floods as glacial lakes release. The most recent of these was 2023.  While these don’t impact Moose Pass, they certainly do at Cooper Landing, occasionally flooding parts of Primrose and Quartz Creek and boat docks on Kenai Lake and the upper Kenai River.  

Chugach, among others, took a close look at possible geothermal at Mount Spurr. Several exploratory wells drilled by Ormat Technologies between 2008 – 2015 found volcanic heat but did not find suitable geology to support geothermal generation. The company dropped its leases in 2015.  There has been renewed interest over the last couple of years.  

One of the things Southcentral Alaska has is coal, lots of coal. There have been multiple proposals to use that coal for energy production. ANGTL (Alaska Natural Gas To Liquids) pushed Fischer Tropsch (gas to liquids and coal to liquids) technology for many years.  The Mental Health Trust looked at leases for a coal mine upstream from Tyonek along the Chuitna River for a few years. PacRim Coal suspended all permitting for this project in 2017 There was interest in coal bed methane in the MatSu around 2007.  Former MEA CEO Wayne Carmony proposed multiple coal plants in the MatSu in 2007, something that probably got him run out of the state.  

DoD has authorization and approval for a 5 MW GenIV reactor at Eielson.  If they can figure out how to legally award a contract, it might actually get built. 

Finally, we have the Big Dog in the discussion, the ever-popular Watana Dam, capable of powering all of the Railbelt for the next half century by itself.  

Why haven’t any of these come to pass? For some reason, we here in Alaska have gotten really good at the NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) and BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything) game.  There is always environmental opposition, generally based on some perceived threat to fish populations.  Yet nobody is ever able to point out specific numbers of fish at risk, much less discuss any mitigation strategy.  But the arm waving and whining are heart rending and make for good media coverage.  

If we want to keep the lights on here in the Railbelt, at least considering some of the possibilities listed above should be the first item in the discussion.  I am fully aware that this is not going to be a fact-based, reasonable, rational discussion.  Rather, it is a persuasion based one, and persuasion needs to be the first tool used in any discussion, getting the attention of the inattentive.  

Environmental grift is well paying grift these days, with environmentalists making a very nice living opposing hydro, coal, natural gas, oil, nuclear and even geothermal, all in favor of the very most environmentally unfriendly, largest footprint, most expensive, least reliable solutions, Big Wind and Big Solar.  

Maybe someone ought to ask the Alaska Center (for the Environment) and REAP why that is so.  Perhaps like the Homelessness Industrial Complex, they are too busy banking their donations to explain.  

Alex Gimarc lives in Anchorage since retiring from the military in 1997. His interests include science and technology, environment, energy, economics, military affairs, fishing and disabilities policies. His weekly column “Interesting Items” is a summary of news stories with substantive Alaska-themed topics. He was a small business owner and Information Technology professional.

32 COMMENTS

  1. Anyone opposed should immediately cease their power use. Anything less is hypocritical. Every greenie needs to return to 17th century lifestyle.

  2. Maybe if our Uniparty Congressional delegation wasn’t so keen on sending 67 billion dollars to fund unending war in Ukraine & the Middle East some of these projects could actually be funded. Traitors, one and all!

  3. One option not discussed is how about if we turn off the power and deny fossil fuels to all the environmentalist
    If there’s that many people out there worried about the environment and climate change then if they give up electricity, gas, and all fossil fuel related entities and that should be a good start.
    Environmental advocate that we all give this up. You guys give it up first and prove to us that it works, and the climate is getting better shut down and talk about it.

    • The Environmentalist Industrial Complex has nearly always misrepresented any issue. Local groups of MatSu Nimbys opposed any kind of larger scale forest management since the 1980’s, saving the valuable and renewable white spruce resource for the spruce beetle. Well it’s gone now. Keep tithing to your Environmental Orgs and believe in their propaganda (it’s only about the money) or you learn about what makes our environment and energy solutions by doing your own look see and internet research. You will know them by their donate page.

  4. Not just in “my back yard” it’s a national attitude of “not in this country.”
    Why shoulder part of the environmental burden to care for the earth when we can have an out of site, out of mind attitude, buying from a third world market that has no safe environmental practices, uses slave & child labor and increase the carbon emissions by shipping huge distances?

    I sent my children to college to learn, to have an education that can create innovative ways to develop Alaska’s resources, protect our environment. I don’t see why Alaskans don’t want to be on the cutting edge of technology, wanting to see new projects develop in a manner that protects our environment, our wildlife, our way of life. We could become an example, a world legacy of how a mine, a power project should be developed, and managed.

    The Snow River flooding is an example of one small area, Cooper Landing running the train. The impact and damage on the lower Kenai River is much greater in magnitude, and costly. This is project which should come back for consideration.

    • The opposition to the CEA’s Snow River hydro proposals was not just “one small area, Cooper Landing”. Opponents from throughout the state criticized the project. To CEA’s credit, after they felt the strength and diversity of those against it, they withdrew after only four weeks. A dam there would likely damage the world famous Kenai River runs of salmon and trout, a major economic engine on the Peninsula.

      • Here we go…..

        Precisely how many fish up the snow river do you think there are? How many would a dam destroy? How many fish are caught in that watershed (include the grayling if you dare)? What is the tradeoff with flood control improvement in the watershed over periodic glacial outbursts.

        I’ll wait. Cheers –

        • First, the flooding from Snow River causes negligible harm. A flood mitigation project is unnecessary. Second, the presence of fish in the Snow River is not the point. The point is the single-temperature, clear water released from the dam would destroy downstream habitat.

  5. This is all well and good, but blue Alaska won’t stand for any of it. More, have you forgotten who’s in the White House?

  6. This is a slanted article. Yes, there is “environmental grift”. But no mention of ‘mega project grift’. Look at AIDEA’s long list of failed mega-projects. Look at the $105 million Anchorage fish processing plant or the never-finished $264 million Houston to Pt. Mac rail extension. Construction companies made lots of money on these projects that were complete failures. AIDEA said these projects were needed, but the economics of them never came close to making sense. People tire if getting lied to.

    So the biggest issue with projects not happening in Alaska is lack of trust in AIDEA and State development shills. Too many billions of public $ have been scammed and wasted for rational people to trust any project that is proposed. People are sick of the corruption.

    • I don’t believe the article or pov is slanted but you do have some good points. Again, it always seems to be “follow the money”.

  7. I really like your opinions, Mr. Gimarc. My hat is off to you for being so logical and concise with your essay. A long time ago, I used to read your letters in the ADN. I’m sure you decided that was useless. But that was when I first started noticing what you said. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Madam. It got so the ADN simply refused to publish anything I wrote, so I took what I do elsewhere (online). Cheers –

  8. A step towards progress would be to vote out Mark Wiggin and Sam Cason on the Chugach Electric Board. The election is ongoing now and the other 2 candidates would be a huge improvement. The Chugach Board is controlled by REAP, which is increasing costs and decreasing reliability, which will only get worse.

    In addition Wiggin and Cason hired the current CEO, a regulatory analyst with no leadership experience. The current CEO was chosen as their choice after they hired Hal Halpern, a total fraud that resulted in a lawsuit that cost us all.

    Vote out Wiggin and Cason, Elect 2 new conservative board members, and then hire a real CEO!

  9. Alex. There are no well paying “environmental ” jobs. ~95% of the good conservation work is done by volunteers. You have an anti-nature perspective and it has corroded your ability to think critically.

    • The “good” conservation work is done by volunteers. No argument there. but the “bad” work is done by well paid shills who often convince the well meaning volunteers to follow their lead. it’s a well orchestrated movement to reduce the world population and you had best believe it, wake up and smell the coffee and start pushing back.

  10. “Finally, we have the Big Dog in the discussion, the ever-popular Watana Dam, capable of powering all of the Railbelt for the next half century by itself.”

    Watana wouldn’t be capable of powering all of the Railbelt now or for the next 50 years all by itself.

      • Agimarc,

        According to the Susitna-Watana dam website “The 705-foot dam will provide 2,800,000-megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity annually, roughly 50 percent of the electricity currently used by the Railbelt’s households and businesses.” ‘https://www.susitna-watanahydro.org/faq_is_suwa_right_size.html’

        It’s worth noting, again, that nameplate data is not the same thing as actual delivered energy. For much of the year Watana would come nowhere close to delivering the rated capacity, the water isn’t there for it.

        Watana by itself is not capable of powering all the railbelt needs now or for the next 50 years.

      • More from the Susitna-Watana proposed project:

        “Power Generation
        The powerhouse will be located immediately downstream of the dam site and will house three generating units, each with an installed capacity of 153 megawatts (MW), at intermediate pool, for a total capacity of 459 MW. The exact sizing may change as a result of further transmission system studies.

        The average annual energy from Susitna-Watana Hydro will be 2,800,000 megawatt hours (MWh). The powerhouse will be designed and constructed with an extra empty generating unit bay for the potential installation of a fourth unit in the future.”

        ‘https://www.susitna-watanahydro.org/hydro_operations.html’

        I’m not sure where the 1,300 MW number came from, but if you have a different source of information I’d be interested in reading it. Also at 2,800,000 MWh the average hourly energy production would be about 320 MW, or about 36% of the 880 MW you provided…so not even the 50% that the Susitna-Watana website claims.

        A lot of money was wasted on that project already and it has been studied and studied again, there are likely a number of scenarios that have been floated over the years and so far none of them have made sense. Inflating numbers or misrepresenting the numbers will not garner any trust whatsoever in this proposed project.

  11. What about tidal generation? Alaska has some serious tides that can be taken advantage of. Using the verticle turbin method is not as efficient but it does solve the silt issues horizontal has. They are platforms that rise and fall with the tides turning the turbine.

  12. Seems like we’re always trying to talk some sense into these UNHINGED Wackos and Obstructionists, whom are intently hell-bent on stifling any reasonable progress on developing smart solutions for Alaska and Alaskans. For example (just a few):

    … This Unhinged & Ultra-Liberal Assembly is constantly working against Bronson at every turn, despite real issues to be solved in Anchorage, all of which Bronson ‘is’ providing reasonable solutions.
    … Weislewski(D), constantly attacking the very industry (ie: HilCorp) that provides the Natural Gas to the Power plants at Beluga Point, Anchorage, and Kenai.
    … Constructing the Susitna – Watana Dam, an Expensive but an Excellent Investment // Endeavor, providing a large source Electric Base Load Energy, as well as jobs and economic opportunity.
    … Donlin Gold Mine // Pebble Mine, both of which are Excellent Investments, providing much needed jobs.
    … ANWR & NPR-A, both of which would help fill TAPS to capacity, provideg much needed Tax Royalties while maybe allowing the Legislature to Fund “FULL” PFD Checks, as well as provide excellent jobs // careers for Alaskans and economic opportunities for Alaskan Businesses.
    … Ambler Road, opening up access to a very rich and in-demand resource. Again, putting Alaskans Alaskan Companies to work, providing generational jobs // careers.

    However, so many of the people we’re surrounded by are Unhinged Ultra-Liberal, and so many of these have embedded themselves into Guv’ment and Companies. It’s a cancer that needs to be cut-out before the infection kills all hope for reasonable prosperity.

  13. This was an excellent overview and accurate analysis of the situation, Mr. Gimarc. After beholding all this over the past half century, I’ve come to the position that no electricity might be a good thing. Turn the lights off, and all these people will go away. The bottom line is that the problem is people. The more people, the more problems. Help them destroy themselves, and the problems go away.

  14. Agree. Hydro is the most sensible, that’s why it’s the most common, although I am not a fan of the Watana project, as I think it would be more practical to build several smaller plants instead of one gigantic one

    • John. Hydro is the most destructive of all renewable energy sources. Solar and wind are much less damaging and cheaper. Solar and wind could supplement our existing energy portfolio.

      • Solar and wind are the most expensive and create the most waste. Currently they are not really green. Maybe some day. Their lifespan is short and I have not seen a real way to effectively recycle the worn out components. Do your research. The lawsuits are growing every day over it. Hydro is not the most destructive. it may be the least destructive in the long term.Especially high altitude dams and lake taps. For much of our state, nuclear may well be our best bet. At least for now. Quit drinking the coolaid. Your lips are purple.

  15. If everyone just would take a step back, take a deep breath and then look a Thorium reactors. Nobody is talking about them enough. It isn’t uranium based reactors that bombs are made of or that are very expensive. Thorium is relatively cheap and the waste is waaayy safer. There could be one safely in every village. Look it up. Norway seems to be the only place using Thorium. Check it out!!

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