Ketchikan, Petersburg and Wrangell all low on hydropower

Ketchikan, Petersburg and Wrangell are partially running on diesel to power their towns. That’s because the communities’ available hydropower is at extremely low levels.

Wrangell and Petersburg are running their diesel generators about 14 hours each day as of last Saturday. And there’s no end in sight.

The Southeast Alaska Power Agency asked these communities to supplement their hydropower. Tyee Lake’s reservoir level is hovering around just three feet above its reserve levels. On its own, that could supply less than a week of power to Wrangell and Petersburg.

Swan Lake, which is also running at extremely low levels, supplies much of Ketchikan’s power. Ketchikan has already been burning a lot of diesel, so much so that Ketchikan officials are worried they might not be able to keep the lights on.

The scarcity of hydropower is due to dry weather. Summer, fall and winter have each had unusually dry bouts.

But SEAPA board members have concerns that the hydropower distribution has been mismanaged. Ketchikan bought power from Tyee Lake in the summer, and SEAPA recently asked the city to pay back for that use.

“We’ve been trying to ship power to the northern communities,” says Karl Amylon, SEAPA board member and Ketchikan’s city manager. “And we’re willing to continue making that good faith effort. As long as we’re not putting our ratepayers at risk. And that’s the bottom line for me.”

The repayment is to help Wrangell and Petersburg during the dry, cold winter. But Amylon says Ketchikan is going through the same weather with even more energy demands.

“When the power was sold to Ketchikan in the summer months the water was available. We’re being asked to try and pay it back when the water isn’t available,” Amylon said.

Amylon also says running that much diesel could reach EPA air quality limits.

Each community is balancing its own burden versus their neighbor’s burden. All of SEAPA’s board members are also city officials in the three Southeast communities. And their own constituents are their priority.

SEAPA Board Member and Wrangell’s City Manager Lisa Von Bargen was sympathetic to Ketchikan’s plight.

“We have no interest in putting Ketchikan in a situation where you are feeling vulnerable you aren’t going to be able to provide power to your ratepayers,” Von Bargen said.

But she doesn’t want to dip into Tyee’s Lake reserves.

“We are getting ready to go into as I understand it what is the driest time of the year,” Von Bargen said. “What if we get don’t get any appreciable water in the next couple of months and we’ve drawn the lakes down. Then all of us have nothing.”

Petersburg and Wrangell officials have floated the idea of SEAPA paying for all or some of the city’s diesel costs, which is much more expensive than using hydropower. It’s unclear what electricity rates will look like for consumers until SEAPA decides whether it will help with burn costs.

SEAPA is pivoting almost daily on how to manage its hydropower. At a meeting Monday, Ketchikan officials said they wanted to dip two feet deep into Swan Lake’s reserves. The board approved that measure.

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