Completion of intertie project in Gustavus marks power connection between city, national park

The two will now both be able to utilize hydropower from Falls Creek
Video by multimedia journalist Beth Verge.
Published: Dec. 31, 2021 at 8:35 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Years after the idea for a connecting system to provide clean power to Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve was born, the construction of the Gustavus intertie — a project linking renewable energy and power resources between Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve and the city of Gustavus — is now complete, with a line connecting the two areas.

If all goes as planned, it will soon provide the park imperative access to the local hydroelectric power plant.

“Since the ‘90s, there had been a plan within Gustavus,” said Jake Ohlson, chief of maintenance with Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. “A private company had proposed to hook to hydro to power the town. There was some thought at the time to power the park as well.”

Then, he explained, there was a land transfer of park service land to the state of Alaska — just over 1,000 acres, around 1998 — to allow for the hydro project to happen at all.

“Because the hydro location was actually within the park boundaries at the time,” Ohlson said, “so they moved and swapped some land around to allow that to happen. And then, the plant construction finally occurred, allowing it to start operation in 2009 or 2010.”

The Falls Creek Hydroelectric Project, which was first built in 2009 and is run by the Alaska Power and Telephone Company, is several miles outside of the tiny town and operates as a run-of-river hydroelectric power plant. This type of hydropower is produced when a facility channels flowing water from a river so that it spins a turbine, providing a continuous load or base load of electricity generation.

With the design of Falls Creek, water goes from the river through a nearly 10,000-foot-long pipe, to a powerhouse with a single-unit turbine and generator. From there, a transmission line that is about 6.4 miles long gets the power out to the community. According to Alaska Power and Telephone, which runs the plant, the 800-kilowatt project displaces about 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel annually.

However, while Gustavus began to utilize hydropower as soon as possible, once the plant was built, getting the park connected has taken quite a bit longer. Its diesel generators were whirring away some 12 years after the plant was constructed.

“Gustavus was a community that was being powered 100% by diesel generation,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowsi, R-Alaska. “and not only was Gustavus being powered by diesel, but NPS, the facility there, at Glacier Bay, was also being powered by a diesel generator. You’ve got great hydro potential, you’ve got a world-class national park, and — why are we using diesel?

“All along,” she continued, “all along, the plan was that it was going to be a joint use between the community of Gustavus and National Park Service.”

While some blame a “slow regulatory process,” there was some contention in the community about a path forward for connecting the park and city power plant.

“The park service says, ‘Well, you know, we could hook up to that,’” said Jim Mackovjak, a longtime Gustavus resident. “People said, ‘Well, do you really deserve to? Because, you know, you opposed this in the beginning there, and now there it is, and you want to hook up.’ But, you know, that said, that’s water under the bridge. And again, it’s a matter of reducing rates, the lower carbon footprint, which is a big factor now, and also the reliability.”

The benefits of any community switching to hydropower can include, but are not limited to, cost savings such as reduced long-term maintenance costs, and reduced pollution. Ohlson pointed to the importation of diesel in the park also leading to noise pollution, which would be diminished as soon as hydro power kicked in for the area.

“The park is basically its own little small town, where we have our own housing, administrative buildings, and Glacier Bay Lodge,” he said, “so it’s fairly complicated infrastructure just of the park. And then Gustavus, of course, has its own system. So this would allow the two systems to be merged into one, more efficient system.

“Working in tandem,” he explained, “not only will it, you know, help with efficiency, it helps with backup, in case they have an issue with one, the other could power.”

The national park and related buildings on the land that have from the start depended on gasoline leave behind an aging diesel system. With the intertie, once contractual agreements are settled, they are now set to use Gustavus’ hydropower network to serve much of the park’s infrastructure, including but not limited to Glacier Bay Lodge, the park information center, several administrative buildings and staff housing. Even getting to this point, however, has been a great challenge.

Just after initial approvals for the hydro plant, Ohlson said, all parties were moving forward to get the hydro connected for the town. At that point, the park service started some preliminary studies to see if it would make sense for the park to connect as well.

“There wasn’t good information about the capacity of the hydroplant,” he said. “What legalities would it take for the park to be connected? And then, about 2005, the park service submitted their initial proposal to hook to hydro. Then, after a couple years of operations, the park service got approval to forward a contract package.”

The package, he said, included a feasibility study, peer reviews, some pre-design work and rate analyses. Finally, in 2017, the intertie was approved as a construction project with a price tag of around $6.5 million as a federally-funded line item construction project, congressionally approved as an individual item versus a larger package of projects. The design phase was awarded in 2019, the construction phase awarded in late 2020, and construction officially started in the summer of 2021.

Through mid-October of this year, teams worked meticulously to connect to two areas flanking Gustavus, primarily through trenching and horizontal boring to get the lines through from one end to the other.

“Horizontal boring was chosen because it’s less of an impact, especially in sensitive areas,” Ohlson said. “So we used horizontal boring to not interrupt most private roads. We went under instead of through, went under some rare plants under the Salmon River, so it didn’t impact the Salmon River itself, then under some other intersections.”

With the completion of the intertie, which includes a 50-year right-of-way permit, the setup as a whole is now closer than it even has been to being complete.

“So you’ve cleaned up the environment, you’ve reduced your footprint, you’ve lowered your cost,” Murkowski said. “And you’ve just added to the quality of the experience of the park and the quality of life there for the community. So it’s been a win-win, but it’s been a heck of a lot longer than I had certainly hoped. And I’m glad to know that we’re in this good place now.”

Alaska Power and Telephone Company CEO Michael Garrett said in a release from NewsWire, in part: “This is truly a ‘triple bottom line’ project that produces societal, environmental, and economic benefits ... Most notably lowering energy costs to the National Park Service and flowing financial benefits directly to the local Gustavus customers.”

At last check, park officials said that before the park goes fully online, a maintenance and operations agreement is being formulated so that Alaska Power and Telephone can operate park generators when hydro can’t keep up with demand. After that, Ohson said, the last step is final rate approval through the Regulatory Commission of Alaska.

View the company’s energy profile for Gustavus by clicking here. Learn more about Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve by heading to the National Park Service website.

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