Sweetheart dam project moves closer to permit

With a new hydroelectric dam in the works for Juneau, members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission arrived Wednesday in the capital city to hear what the public had to say.

It wasn’t much.

In two public testimony sessions at Centennial Hall, only three people spoke up. Among them were Juneau Mayor Mary Becker and her husband, Jim, who offering their support.

“I really support this project,” Mayor Becker said. “I think that our city is looking forward to seeing how this goes.”

“It” is the Sweetheart Lake Hydroelectric Project, a 19.8 megawatt dam and powerhouse whose output would be equivalent to almost one-quarter of Juneau’s existing electric demand, according to a 2013 report.

“The addition of Sweetheart Lake to the portfolio of energy resources for Juneau would add to energy security and provide additional electrical reliability,” the draft environmental statement says.

The project envisions an 111-foot-tall concrete dam at the natural outlet of Lower Sweetheart Lake, which would become a reservoir for the project. A two-mile underground tunnel would convey water from the lake to a powerhouse near sea level at the mouth of Sweetheart Creek. Overland and undersea cables would connect the powerhouse to the existing power transmission lines that link the city to the Snettisham hydroelectric project. The connection would be made to avoid the avalanche-prone sections of that line.

Sweetheart Lake has been pushed for the past six years by Juneau Hydropower Inc., a Juneau-based corporation 89-percent owned by D. Keith Comstock.

Comstock said Wednesday his goal is to continue to provide a steady supply of clean, inexpensive energy for Juneau. He said he sees cheap energy as important for economic growth.

Juneau Hydropower is one of the partners in the nonprofit Lynn Canal Transmission Corporation, which is seeking permission to extend Juneau’s electrical grid north to the Kensington Mine, whose 10-megawatt electrical demand is currently met by diesel generators.

Other demand is expected to come as Juneauites switch from oil-fired heat to electric warmth, from the spread of electric cars (Juneau Hydropower’s labeled Nissan Leafs have become a symbol of the project) and a planned project to provide shoreside power to cruise ships.

“The demand is already there; we don’t have to wait for it,” said Juneau Hydropower vice president Duff Mitchell.

Wednesday’s meeting was intended to gather comments on the project’s draft environmental statement, a document that examines what effects the dam would have. That environmental statement is the biggest part of the federal license process.

“What we’re balancing is the environmental resources versus developing a sustainable hydropower source,” said John Matkowski, project coordinator for Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which issues hydroelectric licenses.

While only three verbal comments — before the Mayor and her husband, Mitchell offered his support — were offered Wednesday, FERC is accepting written comments on the project through the end of the month.

The closest thing the project has to an opponent is Alaska Electric Light and Power, which offered comments in January 2014 that raised concerns with the project. Among those concerns: AEL&P’s existing hydroelectric dams are sufficient to meet demand, the existing grid might not be able to support a new dam, and adding Sweetheart to Juneau’s electric grid could affect rates.

By phone, spokeswoman Debbie Driscoll said the company’s opinion has not changed since those comments were written. An AEL&P engineer was present at Wednesday’s meeting but did not offer comment.

Douglas Island Pink and Chum stocks Lower Sweetheart Lake with approximately 500,000 salmon fry each year, but DIPAC executive director Eric Prestegard said by phone that Juneau Hydropower has been good about working with the fish hatchery.

“I think that they were very responsive to our needs in terms of those fish,” he said.

The fish will continue to be stocked in the lake, even if the dam is built, and operation plans include flow reservations for downstream fish.

Salmon stocked in the lake cannot return upstream due to a series of waterfalls. The falls also kill about half the stocked fish as they migrate out, said Jim Becker, who is chairman of the DIPAC board of directors.

In addition to preserving downstream flow, Juneau Hydropower has designed a way to deliver the fish safely below the falls.

“To me, that is just a gesture of what they’re willing to do for the public, and I certainly support their efforts,” he said.

After public comments close on Dec. 29, the federal government’s final word on the project is expected by July, Matkowski said. Juneau Hydropower is expected to release details of its financing plan in early 2016, and construction is expected to take two years once permission and financing have been lined up.

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