Alaska's Untapped Potential
Dec. 10, 2011 - Russell W. Ray - hydroworld.com
Throughout North America, dozens of new hydropower
projects are being proposed, planned, constructed
or put into operation. One location offering the
greatest opportunity for new hydropower development
is the state of Alaska in the United States.
High energy costs, abundant resources and a strong
standard for renewable generation in the state of
Alaska have created a wealth of opportunity for hydro
developers. The state is home to more than 365,000
miles of rivers and 33,000 miles of coastline, making
it an epicenter for hydropower development in the
U.S. In this article, we share (beginning on page
10) examples of Alaska projects that best illustrate
the types of new developments being pursued in the
However, Alaska isn’t the only place in North
America where new hydro facilities are being pursued.
Beginning on page 15, we offer snapshots of some
of the new development activity occurring in both
the U.S. and Canada.
Dependent on expensive heating fuel and diesel-fired
generation, Alaska has identified more than 200
promising sites for hydropower development and
pledged to produce 50 percent of the state’s
electricity from renewable resources by 2025. To
get there, the state will rely largely on its roaring
rivers and strong ocean tides and currents.
Tapping Alaska’s vast hydro potential is a
major element in Alaska’s plan to create jobs
and provide much needed electricity to isolated communities
throughout a state that is bigger than Texas, California
and Montana combined.
“We have more energy potential than just about
anywhere in the world,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa
Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Our problem is how we
harness it when we’re looking at economies
|Alaska accounts for 40 percent of the United States’ potential
to generate electricity from rivers, according to
the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Already,
hydropower accounts for 24 percent of the state’s
For Alaska, small hydropower projects represent the
best way to supply electricity to scores of small,
isolated villages across the state, said Murkowski,
sponsor of the Hydropower Improvement Act, a bill
pending before the full Senate.
“It’s clean, it’s efficient and
it’s inexpensive,” she said.
Best of all, it would displace diesel-fired generation,
an expensive and polluting form of generation widely
used in villages throughout the Railbelt region.
For hydropower developers, Alaska is an ideal place
to build new projects because of the state’s
high energy costs, abundant resources and a state
law establishing an ambitious goal for renewable
Last year, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power
estimated that Alaska accounts for 40 percent of
the U.S.’s potential to generate electricity
from rivers and 90 percent of the nation’s
potential to produce power from tidal resources.
But the potential of Alaska’s hydrokinetic
resources will not be met until the industry can
prove the technology can withstand Alaska’s
harsh and turbulent conditions. Researchers and developers
are testing several technologies in hopes of resolving
issues related to anchoring, installation, performance
Already, hydropower accounts for 24 percent of the
state’s total electricity consumption, with
50 hydroelectric facilities that produce more than
1.3 million MWh each year, according to the U.S.
Department of Energy.
Speaking to members of the National Hydropower Association
during a regional meeting in September, Alaska Gov.
Sean Parnell said that the construction of new hydropower
capacity is central to the state’s plan to
create economic opportunity for Alaskans.
“Alaska’s roaring rivers can light and
heat our homes during the dark winter nights,” Parnell
said. “Hydropower will put us far down the
path to achieving our goal of 50 percent renewable
energy for electricity by 2025.”
U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said hydropower
should be the heart of any comprehensive plan to
increase renewable energy. “If you want to
be serious about renewable energy, hydropower has
to be part of the discussion,” Begich said. “Nowhere
is that more true than Alaska, which holds over a
third of our country’s untapped hydropower.”
Several hydropower projects are in some stage of
development throughout Alaska’s Railbelt area,
including a 600-MW project on the Susitna River,
several tidal projects in the Cook Inlet and a 5-MW
project near Hydaburg on Reynolds Creek.
Hydro Review examined these and other Alaska projects
that best illustrate the types of new developments
that are being pursued in the state. What follows
is a description of those projects.
|More than 200 sites have been identified for hydropower
development in Alaska, including the Susitna River,
the site of a proposed 600-MW hydro project.|
The 5-MW Reynolds Creek project is under construction
about 10 miles east of Hydaburg, on Prince of Wales
Construction on this project began in 2010 and is
expected to be completed late in 2012. Haida Corp.
owns 75 percent of the project, and Alaska Power & Telephone
owns 25 percent.
The facility will use 750 feet of head to produce,
on average, 19.3 million kWh of electricity annually.
Alaska Power Co. will construct and operate the facility
and purchase the power.
The island is already home to two hydropower projects:
4.5-MW Black Bear Lake and 2.3-MW South Fork. But
most of the island’s electricity is diesel-fired.
The project includes a 28-foot-long, 6-foot-high
diversion structure, a 3,200-foot-long penstock,
a 5-MW powerhouse and a 12-mile transmission line
that will interconnect with existing transmission.
The project also will create 600 acre-feet of storage
at Rich’s Pond and Lake Mellen.
Construction of the 4.6-MW Whitman Lake project near
Ketchikan in southeast Alaska is expected to begin
in July 2012, and the plant should be up and running
by December 2013.
The 39-foot-high, 220-foot-long concrete gravity
arch dam and hydro project will include two 2,450-foot-long
penstocks that lead to each generating unit at Whitman
Dam. The city of Ketchikan expects to award the general
construction contract for the project in May 2012.
The project will produce, on average, 16,500 MWh
annually and will include two turbine-generators
with a maximum capacity of 180 cfs, a 40-foot-wide
ogee spillway and a 1,500-foot-long transmission
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a
license for the 9.6-MW Mahoney Lake project, five
mile northeast of Ketchikan, in January 1998.
But the project was put on hold and the license
was stayed until a 57-mile-long, 138-kV transmission
line could be built.
The transmission line has been completed and the
developers — the City of Saxman, Alaska Power & Telephone
and Cape Fox Corp. — have reestablished a public-private
partnership to build the $46 million project. The
partnership is now seeking funding for the project.
While the start of construction is still uncertain,
the developers hope to complete the project in June
2016. It will be built on Upper Mahoney Lake about
5 miles from Saxman and 3 miles from the Swan-Tyee
and Beaver Falls transmission lines.
Officials estimate the Mahoney hydro project will
displace about 46,000 MWh of diesel-fired generation
or 3.1 million gallons of diesel each year.
The project will not require the construction of
a dam. It will include a lake tap, which would enter
Upper Mahoney Lake about 75 feet below the surface
via a vertical shaft and two tunnels to carry water
from Upper Mahoney Lake to the powerhouse. The powerhouse
will be built above Lower Mahoney Lake near the base
of a large waterfall. The project also includes more
than 4 miles of underground and overhead transmission
First conceptualized in the 1980s, the proposed 330-MW
Chakachmna project would be built on the west side
of Cook Inlet by TDX Power and would provide 1,600
MWh annually to the Railbelt grid.
The $1.6 billion project, which is still awaiting
approval by FERC, would use the lake’s elevation
to generate power by sending water down a 10-mile
tunnel from the eastern end of the lake to an underground
power plant on the north side of McArthur River.
The project also calls for the construction of a
40-mile transmission line.
The project would divert water from the Chakachamna
River to the McArthur Drainage Basin.
Officials estimate the Chakachamna project would
provide about a quarter of Alaska’s current
demand for electricity.
In April 2011, Alaska lawmakers and Gov. Parnell
approved legislation authorizing the Alaska Energy
Authority to move forward with the 600-MW Susitna-Watana
The 700-foot-high dam would be built about 15 miles
upstream of Devil’s Canyon Rapids, halfway
between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and would generate
on average 2,600 GWh of electricity annually. The
dam would create a 39-mile-long, 2-mile-wide reservoir.
Officials estimate the $5 billion project could
provide up to half of the Alaskan Railbelt’s
electricity needs at affordable prices. The project
has been deemed necessary to meet the state’s
new standard for renewable generation.
“To meet the state’s goal of having
half of Alaska’s electricity generated by renewable
resources by 2025, we must invest in a large-scale
hydro project,” Gov. Parnell said.
The Susitna project was initially proposed in the
1970s as a two-dam project, but it was shelved in
the 1980s because fuel was inexpensive at the time
and state resources were limited. Since then, energy
costs and oil prices have skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, the project continues to work its way
through the licensing process at FERC.
The 12-MW Connelly Lake project received a preliminary
permit from FERC and is in the design-feasibility
The $32 million project is being developed 15 miles
northeast of Haines by Alaska Power & Telephone.
The 48-foot-high dam would be built where Connelly
Lake flows into Chilkoot River. The lake has an elevation
of about 1,500 feet. The dam would create a 160-acre
The project would include a 6,200-foot-long penstock,
two 6-MW turbine generators and a 14-mile, 34.5-kV
transmission line. The penstock would carry water
to the powerhouse near the Chilkoot River, where
the water would be discharged back into the river.
Other North American projects
While hydro developers find much promise in Alaska,
this isn’t the only location for new development.
Throughout the U.S. and Canada, we found hydro
development under way. The following paragraphs
Three of six run-of-river hydroelectric plants are
under construction at existing dams on the Ohio
River. American Municipal Power is building the
projects to increase its use of renewable power
and decrease its dependency on the volatile wholesale
Voith Hydro will supply turbines and generators
for the first four run-of-river facilities under
a $420 million contract.
The six run-of-river projects are: 72-MW Smithland,
105-MW Meldahl, 48-MW Robert C. Byrd, 35-MW Willow
Island, 84-MW Cannelton, and 49-MW Pike Island.
The Snohomish County Public Utility District has
officially opened a new hydropower project, the
7.5-MW Youngs Creek facility, near Sultan in the
state of Washington.
The $29 million project, which took about three
years to build, can generate enough power for about
2,000 homes. The dam, 12 feet tall and 65 feet wide,
is the first dam built in Washington in nearly 20
Ontario Power Generation is adding 440 MW to its
Lower Mattagami Hydropower Complex in northeastern
Ontario, increasing capacity by 90 percent to 924
In addition to adding more units to existing power
stations at Little Long, Harmon and Kipling, OPG
is replacing a fourth generation station, Smoky Falls,
with a three-unit, 215-MW powerhouse.
Alstom Hydro is providing the project three turbine
generator sets under a C$110 million (US$108 million)
contract signed last year. All three units will be
installed at the new Smoky Falls station. “This
is a good example of redevelopment work that utilizes
the best of Alstom’s capabilities,” said
Claude Lambert, president and chief executive officer
of Alstom Hydro North America.
The Wuskwatim Project, a 200-MW run-of-river generating
station under construction on the Burntwood River
in northern Manitoba, will begin generating power
early next year.
“We expect the first of three units to be
commissioned in February,” said Ed Wojczynski,
the manager of project development for Manitoba Hydro. “It’s
a project that involves essentially no flooding and
it’s a daily run-of-river. It’s a world-class
The low-head design of the project will create less
than one half of a square kilometer of flooding,
the least amount of flooding of any hydro project
in northern Manitoba.
The 2.35-MW Bowersock project on the Kansas River
is tripling its capacity with a $20 million expansion
that is expected to be up and running by September
Bowersock Mills & Power Co. in Lawrence, Kan.,
is adding turbine-generators in a new powerhouse
on the north end of Bowersock Dam. The 5-MW expansion
includes the installation of four turbine-generators.
The expansion was licensed by FERC in August 2010,
just six months after the application was submitted.
Last fall, construction began on a 335-MW powerhouse
immediately downstream of Waneta Dam and its existing
powerhouse on the Pend d’Oreille River.
The new powerhouse is expected to begin commercial
production in the spring of 2015. So far, the project
remains on schedule, as workers move forward on the
excavation of the intake, powerhouse and tunnels
for the C$900 million (US$885 million) project.
The new powerhouse will share the existing dam’s
hydraulic head and will produce power from flow that
would otherwise be spilled. The project is being
developed by Fortis Inc. in partnership with Columbia
Power Corp. and the Columbia Basin Trust.
Verdant Power has filed an application with FERC
to install up to 30 tidal turbines in the East
Channel of the East River in New York City.
The project would be the first tidal plant in the
U.S. licensed to transmit energy onto the national
Called the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE)
Project, the initiative has been Verdant Power’s
signature effort to commercialize its Free Flow kinetic
system, which utilizes three-bladed turbines deployed
in fast-moving tides and rivers to generate energy.
The Lower Churchill Project calls for the construction
of an 824-MW plant at Muskrat Falls, a 2,250-MW
facility at Gull Island and 130 miles of subsea
transmission that would carry the power around
Quebec’s border to Nova Scotia, where it
could then be exported to the U.S.
The proposed megaproject, downstream from the 5,428-MW
Churchill Falls project, would produce nearly 17
TWh of electricity and offset more than 1 million
tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.
At the center of Quebec’s plan to boost export
capacity to the U.S. is a 1,550-MW hydropower complex
under construction on the Romaine River. The C$6.5
billion (US$6.4 billion) La Romaine project along
Quebec’s Lower North Shore is expected to be
up and running by 2020.
The project calls for the construction of four generating
stations capable of producing 8 TWh a year.
Most of the power will be exported to the U.S. Profits
from those export sales could reach C$2 billion (US$1.97
billion) in the first 12 years, the province estimates.
Hydro-Quebec, the provincially owned utility, agreed
to pay Alstom Hydro 70 million euro (US$98 million)
to supply and install two 320-MW vertical Francis
turbines and related generating equipment for the
project on the Romaine River.
Canadian provincial utility BC Hydro is adding two
500-MW generators to the existing powerhouse at
Mica Dam on the Columbia River, which was completed
in 1977. Work is to cost of about C$1 billion (US$984
million), and construction began in May 2011. The
project contractors are Andritz Hydro and Peter
Kiewit Infrastructure Group. The additional units
will boost the plant’s capacity 55 percent
to 2,805 MW. Unit 5 is expected to be up and running
by 2014 and Unit 6 by 2015.