A view of Angoon from a floatplane on Friday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

A view of Angoon from a floatplane on Friday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Thayer Creek Hydro project fulfills ‘dream of the elders’

Angoon hydropower groundbreaking comes after four decades of effort, seeks to stabilize future costs

“You can see the whales just from right here,” Nadine Demmert, a senior at Angoon High School, said. “Jumping right now. That’s what I want to preserve. It’s amazing.”

Demmert was nervous speaking in front of her community at the Thayer Creek hydroelectric project celebration Friday in the Angoon Elementary School gymnasium, but she said she overcame her fear because she’s passionate about clean energy. Demmert helped film the celebration with See Stories, an Alaskan nonprofit that works with youths on social awareness filmmaking and podcasting projects.

“I think it’s important because we only have one planet and it’s best to protect it,” Demmert said in her speech. “If you look at the difference between towns in the Lower 48 and towns here, it’s really drastic. This is our home — the longer we protect it from being all smoggy, we can keep it in the beautiful shape it’s been in for so long. I hope that this also encourages other towns to start an amazing project like this to help protect our home.”

Nadine Demmert, a senior at Angoon High School, gives a speech at the community celebration on Friday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Nadine Demmert, a senior at Angoon High School, gives a speech at the community celebration on Friday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Thayer Creek is considered a modest creek at 75 feet across, but will produce 850 kilowatts of electricity, roughly three times the size of Angoon’s current needs. Power will be generated by a waterfall that causes turbines to turn.

It will replace Angoon’s diesel plant, which will be preserved as a backup. The switch to renewable energy will save 250,000 gallons of fuel each year. It will be operated by the nonprofit Inside Passage Electric Cooperative and be built upstream of a natural salmon barrier. Thayer Hydro is a run-of-the-river project, meaning there won’t be a huge dam or reservoir created. No fish will be harmed, according to the cooperative.

A humpback whale spouts in Angoon. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

A humpback whale spouts in Angoon. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

Not only will Thayer Hydro provide excess power that holds its own realm of possibilities, but run-of-the-river projects provide long-term solutions. For example, the Gold Creek Power Plant in Juneau has been around for over 100 years and is still providing power.

Honoring the past of Thayer Creek

Angoon Tribal, corporation and community leaders traveled more than 43 years ago to Washington, D.C., to negotiate a deal granting Kootznoowoo Inc. the rights to develop hydropower for the community of Angoon.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed Admiralty Island a National Monument, setting the island aside until Congress could resolve its long-term status.

Lobbyists met with legislators, environmental groups and President Carter to ensure, through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, that “nothing in ANILCA would affect the continuation of the opportunity for subsistence uses by the residents of Admiralty Island, that the people of Angoon would have the right to quiet enjoyment of Mitchell Bay and the watershed around it, and that Angoon would have the right to develop hydropower in Thayer.”

The right to develop the hydroelectric resources within the Thayer Creek watershed was granted to Kootznoowoo by Section 506 of ANILCA in 1980, but with no funding.

Angoon has depended on diesel generation for decades, paying between four and eight times more for electricity than the national average.

The Angoon Youth Dance Group files into the Angoon Elementary School gymnasium. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The Angoon Youth Dance Group files into the Angoon Elementary School gymnasium. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

On Friday, Angoon’s celebration focused on the estimated cost of the project — $34 million — being fully funded by the Alaska Energy Authority, the Denali Commission, the Department of Energy Office of Clean Energy Development, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Tribal Electrification Program, Inside Passage Electric Cooperative and Kootznoowoo Inc. Almost $27 million of the funding came from the bipartisan infrastructure bill on Feb. 27, led by U.S. Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan.

Historian Peter Metcalfe called the hydroelectric power solution “one of the most creative and effective Congressional lobbying campaigns in American history.”

He was the Kootznoowoo director of corporate communications from 1985 to 1994, and from 1999 to 2001. Metcalfe presented a historical presentation at Angoon’s community celebration on Friday to honor past tribal and community leaders.

“Most lobbying efforts in Congress are exceedingly well funded,” Metcalfe said. “At the time, 1977 through 1980, Kootznoowoo was really underfunded. And they were able to support Sterling (Bolima) in Washington, D.C, and they were able to support sending elders to testify. But they weren’t paying a lobbyist $250,000 a piece. And you compare it to something like, say BP or Exxon, where they have armies of lobbyists. That’s a typical lobbying effort in Washington, D.C.”

“Here, you have this little village. It’s one guy who happens to be a genius, Sterling and Eve (Reckley) was his assistant. Those were the lobbying efforts. And here they saved this island of a million acres, as well as the preservation of a way of life dating back several thousand years.”

A slide presented as part of the history of the Thayer Creek hydroelectric project shows a map of the area and a description by Sterling Bolima, a lobbyist for Angoon, of negotiations with officials in Washington, D.C., before compromise agreement was reached in 1980. (Slide by Peter Metcalfe)

A slide presented as part of the history of the Thayer Creek hydroelectric project shows a map of the area and a description by Sterling Bolima, a lobbyist for Angoon, of negotiations with officials in Washington, D.C., before compromise agreement was reached in 1980. (Slide by Peter Metcalfe)

Metcalfe added if it wasn’t for the testimonies of the elders and letters written by schoolchildren, the lobbying efforts wouldn’t have been successful.

State Rep. Rebecca Himschoot, a Sitka independent, also recognized how long the community of Angoon has been waiting for Thayer Hydro to begin.

“I see people here who are patient and persevere,” she said. “And the thing that I appreciate the most is the elders who had the foresight to look ahead and see what was going to be needed, and what your community needed to look like. And this slide show today was really an illustration of how deeply rooted the elders were in this community and knowing what needed to happen and how best to make that happen. So I’m just very impressed by the community.”

Last year, Kootznoowoo received a special use permit from the National Forest Service to build Thayer.

At 1,700 square miles, Admiralty Island is the seventh largest in the United States. Most of the island’s 1,500 square miles is within the Kootznowoo Wilderness Area. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

At 1,700 square miles, Admiralty Island is the seventh largest in the United States. Most of the island’s 1,500 square miles is within the Kootznowoo Wilderness Area. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

K.J. Metcalf was the first Forest Service ranger of Admiralty Island when it was proclaimed a national monument in 1978. In 1980, he left the Forest Service to live in Angoon. He said living in the community helped him understand the connection of the people of Angoon with the land. He’s now the president of Friends of Admiralty Island, an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization “dedicated to publicly advocating for the continued protection of the Island’s wilderness values.”

“This is one step in making Angoon a healthier, more livable community,” Metcalf said regarding Thayer. “This cheaper power, dependable power: it’s a dream of the elders.”

The mayor of Angoon, Peter Duncan, said Thayer Hydro came to full realization through different entities working together in what he called a rare occurrence.

“Because we are all working together is why all of this is happening I feel,” he said. “We’re working together, the tribe, the corporation, the city, and it hasn’t happened for a while. If we continue to keep that up and work together, a lot of other good things are going to happen for the people of Angoon.”

Michael Downs, Juneau and Admiralty Island National Monument district ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, echoed Duncan’s sentiment.

“This day marks a significant milestone for the community,” Downs said. “Your journey to this point has been long and challenging. And yes, we recognize the Forest Service has been part of that challenge. But we stand here together to celebrate the progress and much-anticipated funding of the Thayer Hydro project, which is not just a development. It is a symbol of sustainable progress, and a brighter future for Angoon that promises to provide clean, reliable energy, enhance your economy and preserve the natural beauty that we all hold dear.”

The Angoon Youth Dance Group performs in the Angoon Elementary School gymnasium for the Thayer Creek hydroelectric project celebration on Friday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

The Angoon Youth Dance Group performs in the Angoon Elementary School gymnasium for the Thayer Creek hydroelectric project celebration on Friday. (Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire)

“Team Thayer” was also thanked, which consisted of Southeast Conference, IPEC, Angoon Community Association, the city of Angoon, Kootznoowoo, Alaska’s congressional delegation and the Denali Commission.

ACA tribal president Mary Jean Duncan said the hydro project has been in the works “since time immemorial” and she looks forward to the renewable energy Thayer Hydro will provide the community.

The future of hydropower in Angoon and across Southeast

During this summer and into the fall, “heritage” work will be done to ensure any ground disturbed by Thayer Hydro doesn’t impact any historic or cultural artifacts and structures. A mitigation plan will be developed to address adverse effects.

By the end of 2024, the project team will prepare contract documents to go out to bid for the first phase of construction of a barge landing and staging area, and a connecting road between Stillwater Bay and Thayer Creek. The project team will also do procurement documents for long-lead items such as the turbine and generator. The project is estimated to be completed in 2028.

Thayer Creek is located just outside of Angoon. (Photo courtesy of Jon Wunrow)

Thayer Creek is located just outside of Angoon. (Photo courtesy of Jon Wunrow)

Jon Wunrow, Kootznoowoo executive director of tourism and natural resources and Thayer Hydro project manager, estimated 50 to 75 jobs will be created from Thayer Hydro spanning the next four years. Angoon’s population as of 2023 is 343.

New jobs include cutting down trees to build a road, building the road, building a dock, monitoring animal and marine mammal life, monitoring cultural and historic sites, heavy equipment operators, and diesel mechanics.

“Part of our role, when we put these contracts out for bid is we’ll give lots of points to the contractors that either create apprenticeships training programs as part of what they offer, or a commitment to hire locally, maybe a commitment to help us provide training for these jobs,” Wunrow said. “That will be part of how we solicit companies to do this work is how can they help us in the job training and then ultimately, employment.”

There are other infrastructure projects coming to Angoon, such as a water-sewer project, an airport project, and visitor’s center project. Jobs like tree-cutters and heavy equipment operators could be shared through an array of projects in the community in the future.

He added if employees come from Angoon, not only does it benefit the local economy and provide living wage jobs, but it also helps projects’ affordability.

The excess energy from Thayer Hydro also provides various opportunities for the community.

“There’s enough generation to meet all of the needs plus, during most of the year, there’s going to be one to two times excess electricity, and that excess electricity can be used to electrify other things within the community,” said Devany Plentovich, Thayer Hydro’s project engineer. “So they can install heat pumps and displace heating oil boilers with heat pumps and electrify all of the heating needs. That’s another 100,000 gallons of heating oil that could be displaced, a huge amount. Electric cars could become a thing in the community where they are charging at night when there’s not a heavy load on the community. But there’s still water running through the river. And there’s economic development opportunities. You could easily put in a sawmill or do some small manufacturing with inexpensive excess hydro.”

Beyond the possibility for electric cars like Plentovich suggests, electric boat motors and electric ferries are being considered. Still, some would like to see something that may sound simple to most, but a “big deal” for Angoon: a restaurant.

“I believe a restaurant, or a coffee shop would be really good,” Melissa Kookesh, former board chair and current treasurer for Kootznoowoo, said. “I think if we could get that here, that would be awesome. I know we have a lot of people here that cook and that do a lot of catering, but having a space for them to be able to do that would be great.”

Kootznoowoo Inc. former board chair Melissa Kookesh thanks U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski for securing the funding for the Thayer Creek hydroelectric project through the bipartisan infrastructure bill. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kookesh)

Kootznoowoo Inc. former board chair Melissa Kookesh thanks U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski for securing the funding for the Thayer Creek hydroelectric project through the bipartisan infrastructure bill. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Kookesh)

Kookesh added with reduced electricity costs, there’s the potential for Angoon’s renovated museum to start being used as a carving shed or classroom space for weaving, beading and carving.

Jodi Mitchell, chief executive officer for IPEC, said it’s “her dream” for each community they serve to be able to afford an affordable restaurant.

“I’ve always been disappointed that the only community in our service area that can have a sustainable restaurant is Hoonah,” Mitchell said. “But part of that reason is because they have a larger population, they have closer to 800 year-round residents. And they have the tourism industry that brings in a lot of people from outside. I’m also hoping that the community (of Angoon) will embrace some kind of small amount of tourism. Electric boats could offer tourism opportunities.”

Thayer Hydro will stabilize Angoon’s costs. It will also benefit the other four communities IPEC serves: Kake, Hoonah, Chilkat Valley and Klukwan.

“The way IPEC operates is we treat our systems as if they were all linked together on one grid,” Mitchell said. “That’s how we do our accounting and our billing. So everybody pays the same amount, the same rate, which we call a postage stamp rate. So the cheaper it is, for any community, it gets shared with all of the communities. Any reduction in cost for our four microgrids, it spreads the benefit over all our 1,400 members.”

When Mitchell first joined IPEC in 1993, it was 100% diesel generation.

“I did the math, and right now we’re at 29% renewable power from hydro,” Mitchell said. “After that project (Thayer Hydro) is put online, at current levels of consumption, we (IPEC) would be at 50% hydropower.”

Angoon is the last IPEC community that is on 100% diesel, and one of the last two hydropower projects written into an Energy Plan by the IPEC board and Mitchell when she became CEO in 2008. At that time, IPEC identified possible hydro projects near the towns it was serving.

In 2006, IPEC received a grant to buy the 10-mile Haines Highway project, which provides 60% of power in Chilkat Valley and Klukwan, two communities that share a microgrid. In 2015, IPEC completed a hydroelectric project in Hoonah at Gartina Falls, and in 2020, IPEC completed the Kake Hydro project at Gunnuk Creek.

A slide presented as part of the history of the Thayer Creek hydroelectric project quotes Dan Johnson Sr., one of the early directors of Kootznoowoo Inc., in a letter to Congressman John Seiberling advocating for Angoon’s land protection. (Slide by Peter Metcalfe)

A slide presented as part of the history of the Thayer Creek hydroelectric project quotes Dan Johnson Sr., one of the early directors of Kootznoowoo Inc., in a letter to Congressman John Seiberling advocating for Angoon’s land protection. (Slide by Peter Metcalfe)

The last two projects under the IPEC Energy Plan will be Thayer Hydro and IPEC’s Water Supply Creek project, Hoonah’s second hydroelectric project.

Water Supply Creek is “shovel-ready” according to Mitchell. She’s applied for two grants for the project from the federal government, and IPEC received $3.5 million from the state of Alaska Renewable Energy Fund — $8 million is still needed.

“As long as it’s 100% grant funded, we won’t have to pay debt service on loans,” Mitchell said. “And so that’s the goal is to have it 100% grant funded and not have to take on any debt.”

When IPEC built the Gartina Falls project in Hoonah back in 2015, they built power lines from the town to the falls. The Water Supply Creek project will be able to use some of the same distribution lines, meaning only half a mile of line will need to be added to bring additional power to the community.

“The other thing that’s really exciting is that Hoonah’s power load keeps growing because of the tourism industry,” Mitchell said. “The Water Supply Creek project will add about another 25% of Hoonah’s electric load, which would make them more like 50% hydro, but probably not as much in the summer because of the higher load. But one of the goals and standards for a utility like ours with limited hydro is to be able to turn the diesel engines off, so that we’re not burning diesel at all. This project at Water Supply Creek will allow us to turn our diesel engines off in the fall and in the spring when there’s a lot of rain. That’s huge.”

• Contact Jasz Garrett at jasz.garrett@juneauempire.com or (907) 723-9356.

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