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Rep. Keller: “It doesn’t make sense” to build the Susitna dam right now

by Phillip Manning ~ May 1st, 2014

A persistent question during the state’s legislative session this year was whether Alaska can afford to move forward on all of the megaprojects currently on its plate.  The Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project was among those.  Is it possible that legislative support for the dam is losing steam?  KTNA’s Phillip Manning spoke with Representative Wes Keller about Susitna-Watana, and has this report:

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Near the end of the legislative session, Representative Wes Keller, who represents the area where the Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project is being proposed, voted against an amendment to strip the $20 million in funding for the dam from the capital budget.  Now, he says that there may not be the political will to see the project through to completion, but that he still stands by his vote for the sake of continuing scientific studies on the Susitna River.

“I really don’t anticipate that’s going to go much further, but the studies that were started on the salmon, the impact, and all that kind of stuff…We don’t want to just pay for half of it and not have anything usable at all.”

Throughout the legislative session, questions were raised about which of the multiple megaprojects currently pursued by the state might be viable in the long-term.  Representative Keller says he believes that the proposal for a natural gas pipeline is a better solution than Susitna-Watana for the state’s energy needs.

“I just don’t think the timing is right for building the dam.  I understand–there’s a lot of arguments not to build it.  I’ve heard them all.  I’ve had a really good relationship with the folks who are opposing it….But even beyond that, it doesn’t make sense.  Especially with the impending gas line coming through.”

Governor Sean Parnell’s administration is still pushing for Susitna-Watana.  So far, the state has spent more than $170 million to research the feasibility of building a 735-foot tall dam on the Susitna. After the $20 million that was appropriated this session, the Alaska Energy Authority says it will need approximately $90 million more to complete the prep-work to apply for a federal license to begin construction. Karen Rehfeld, Director of Management and Budget for Governor Parnell, says that the process is still in a fairly early phase.

“There’s still what I see as being several components to get to that,  ‘Is the project going to be pencil out, be feasible, and we’ll continue to do it?’  At this point, the state has felt it’s important to continue to do this work to get to that point.”

Karen Rehfeld says she believes completion of the studies is still a priority for Governor Parnell.  She says that if the project is built, the more than $5 billion initial price tag may not fall entirely on the state.

“I don’t believe the state, at the point where you get to a decision to proceed with design-construction, will be on the hook for the entire cost of the project.”

AEA’s current plan relies on sale of power from the dam to eventually pay it off.  It’s at that point that they say it really begins to emerge as a low-cost energy alternative relative to fossil fuels.

While the $20 million appropriation is less than half of what Governor Parnell requested from state legislators, AEA believes that there is enough funding to conduct a field season.  Emily Ford, spokeswoman for AEA, says that while there will not be as much activity as last summer, that research will continue on and around the Susitna River.

For now, it seems there is sufficient political will on the part of the administration and legislature to allow the studies to continue. What is less certain is whether that will translate to the willingness to continue providing large appropriations if and when it comes time to build the Susitna-Watana project.

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