Twenty years ago, a local partnership brought the world’s first privately owned electric cruise ship dock online on Juneau’s waterfront. Today, despite broad community interest in electrifying additional docks, that first dock is still the only dock that is electrified.
The City and Borough of Juneau’s quest to electrify two city-owned cruise ship docks downtown hit a snag in late November when the federal government denied the city’s request for a RAISE grant to complete the work. But, Docks and Harbors officials say they remain optimistic Juneau will eventually see money flow to the project, which they say is technically complex and a heavy lift that will involve multiple parties.
Some critics contend that part of the problem with Juneau’s grant request to electrify additional docks is the amount of energy Alaska Electric Light & Power has available for newly electrified docks. But, those involved say the amount of electricity currently available is not the issue keeping Juneau from the grant and that the questions of when, how, and if to add power-generating capacity depend on various factors.
Chasing federal money
Over the summer, city leaders submitted a federal grant application to cover the lion’s share of construction for the project. They pledged community matching dollars of about $4.9 million — which represents about 20% of the estimated cost — to fund the project many locals view as a desirable waterfront addition that will reduce pollution from cruise ships and other marine vessels by replacing diesel fuel with renewable energy. The Visitor Industry Task Force recommended prioritizing dock electrification in its 2019 report.
Carl Uchytil, CBJ port director, said he was disappointed that Juneau was not selected for the grant offered as part of the Rebuilding America Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity Grant. But, he said the grant award process is competitive and that successful applicants tended toward safety-related changes and multi-modal projects during this cycle.
Uchytil said he’s happy for other Alaskan communities, such as Cordova and Haines, which will receive the federal money. Overall, he said that Alaska did well in the grant process and he was happy about that.
According to the RAISE Grants Capital Fact Sheets, published by the U.S. Department of Transportation, 763 applicants asked for about $10.3 billion in federal assistance for local projects. In the end, only 90 projects were successful in securing federal money, leaving about 90% of the projects unfunded.
“It’s just competitive forces,” he said. “You gotta play the long game. The reviewers are going to say, this is your first time around you’re going to have to wait to be chosen. That’s just the way the real world works.”
Uchytil said that Docks and Harbor will continue to pursue federal funding to electrify the docks and will seek feedback to make the application more robust.
“We have not given up. We will learn. We will ask for a review from the Department of Transportation folks, which we always do,” Uchytil said.
He said that politics are also part of the equation.
“Basically, we are at a disadvantage of dock electrification because people look at it as something that benefits the cruise lines and ask why are we doing something that will benefit them? But, it’s hard to communicate to a reviewer in Washington, D.C., that the project benefits Juneau. That’s part of the challenge in communicating the local desire and wants,” Uchytil said.
Assessing available power
At a recent Committee of the Whole meeting, CBJ Assembly members heard from engineers and consultants about a study to assess what it will take to provide shore power to docked ships and how much it will cost to build the capacity.
Overall, the project team reported enough excess hydropower during years of average precipitation to supply most ships with shore power connections. The study found that Juneau currently has enough excess energy available to power docked cruise ships about 25% of the time — a number that raised eyebrows among some assembly members and longtime advocates for shore power.
“A lot of criticism is because of a vacuum of information,” said Erich Schaal, CBJ port engineer and architect. “It’s a very dynamic situation.”
Schaal said that weather conditions are a crucial factor in how much power AEL&P can generate and that it’s difficult to predict how much water will be available every month.
“There’s a narrative that it’s easy and it doesn’t cost us anything and that’s unfortunate,” Schaal said.
Alec Mesdag, vice president and director of energy services at AEL&P, agreed that weather and precipitation are crucial factors.
“One question that helps explain the challenge associated with serving large, mobile loads like cruise ships is to ask, ‘how much precipitation will arrive each month for the next year? And how cold will it be over that time?’” Mesdag said in an email to the Empire.
He continued: “The answers to those questions play a tremendous role in whether we have enough energy to serve additional cruise ships, but they are questions that no one can answer ahead of time. We do know the probable range of precipitation and temperature, but that doesn’t tell us exactly what will happen next month or the month after that, and so on.”
Mesdag said some years provide more precipitation than others and that high-water years may happen in clusters. But, he noted droughts could also occur in successive years. He said that Southeast Alaska experienced a two-year drought as recently as 2019.
“Based on decades of data and years of experience, we currently estimate that if CBJ electrifies its docks, surplus energy to meet that demand will be available about 25% of the time,” Mesdag said.
Location, location, location
Beyond weather, Juneau’s isolated location is another aspect that makes delivering more power challenging.
“We are not on the North American power grid. We are limited on our island of Juneau. The utility can’t provide power with a switch. It’s more complicated than that,” Uchytil said. “We don’t have anyone to call on when we need power. That’s why interruptible customers like Greens Creek and Princess are important.”
“We’ve heard folks say, ‘Juneau was the first in the world to connect a cruise ship to shore power — how hard can it be to connect more ships? Stop studying it and just do it.’ While it’s true that AEL&P and Princess Cruise Lines were the first to pioneer shore-side power for large cruise ships, the other locations around the world which adopted that technology and which connect multiple cruise ships (e.g., Seattle, San Diego, New York) do not have a small, isolated electric system like Juneau does. When a cruise ship connects in Juneau, the ship might be adding 30% more load to the electric system. Three connected cruise ships could double the existing load – that is certainly not the case in other locations. Loads or generators which are considered small in terms of down-south systems are significant, large loads in Juneau.”
Schaal said that Juneau’s isolation from the rest of the power grid also means that AEL&P needs the summer to do maintenance and prepare for winter when the city’s need for heat and power can peak.
“In the summer season, they do things to keep things moving and ready for the winter,” Schaal said. “We need to be conscious of asking them to produce electric energy during that time.”
Schaal said that other changes —like the growing popularity of electric cars, heat pumps and the city’s plan to purchase a fleet of electric buses also affect the amount of power available.
“A cruise ship is a whole bunch of buses at once,” Schaal said.
A difficult task
Schaal said that one thing people get wrong about the conversation is assessing the difficulty of connecting cruise ships to Juneau’s electricity grid.
“There would be a direct impact to their operation,” Schaal said. “It’s a very technically complex project. It takes a vision for the future and an understanding of what can happen in a different future.”
Mesdag said that connecting a cruise ship to the power grid is a difficult task that can lead to a bumpy ride. He said that cruise ships can’t kill the power before connecting to Juneau’s electric grid, which makes connecting more difficult and time-consuming.
He likened the process of connecting a large cruise ship to a small power grid to sitting in a boat on a calm day.
He said if a single boat passes, the size of the boat relative to the size of the wake influences how the vessel rides the turbulence. However, if two boats pass simultaneously and the wakes are not perfectly aligned, the boater is in for a rough ride.
“Since cruise ships cannot shut off their power before connecting to Juneau’s system, the two electric systems have to be in sync before they can connect. If the two electric systems aren’t in sync with one another at the time of connection, dangerous levels of turbulence will damage equipment and endanger lives,” Mesdag said, noting that making a synchronized connection requires sophisticated equipment and deliberate, precise coordination between the ship and AEL&P.
Meeting growing demand for electricity
Mesdag said additional electricity infrastructure improvements present a tricky dance for the utility.
“We would need to see sustained load growth from firm (non-interruptible) customers or certainty of revenues from large interruptible customers before building additional generation capacity – otherwise we simply add more costs to our system that existing firm customers would have to bear,” Mesdag said, citing the cost to construct new hydroelectric generation facilities.
Shortly after the report to the Committee of the Whole, Duff Mitchell, managing director of Juneau Hydropower, expressed disappointment and questioned the premise that the docks should be interruptible customers. Mitchell said making the docks firm customers would help ensure that AEL&P generated adequate power to sell.
But, Mesdag disagreed.
“Serving the cruise ships as interruptible customers provides the highest economic benefit to the rest of the community because it allows AEL&P to sell surplus hydroelectric energy without having to invest in additional infrastructure. Any additional infrastructure required of AEL&P will increase costs for existing firm customers,” Mesdag said.
• Contact reporter Dana Zigmund at email@example.com or 907-308-4891.