Swan Lake Fire causing utility bills to increase
The Swan Lake Fire on the Kenai Peninsula continues to burn and chew up resources. The fire’s effects are now spreading to utility customers’ pocketbooks, due to damaged transition lines leading north from the Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Project near Homer.
"So it's not producing at 100%, therefore, the dam is spilling water at the current time and, depending on weather conditions, will continue to spill as long as — until that power can be generated," Alaska Energy Authority Executive Director Curtis Thayer said.
Thayer says the hydro plant is running at about 50%, with the Homer area taking in all the hydro-produced power. It's still not enough to keep the dam from spilling water daily.
“It's not ideal because we spill about $80,000 a day in what could be used to produce power," Thayer said.
That’s not money lost or being dumped, but rather the amount that could be generated in a day, according to Thayer.
Utility companies along the railbed from Homer to Fairbanks rely on an energy mix of natural gas, wind and hydro. About 10% of that mix is hydro, and, with the transmission lines down, utility companies have to fill the loss. Filling the loss with natural gas means a slight bump in utility bills.
"That is just because natural gas is more expensive than hydro," said Chugach Electric Association Senior Manager of Corporate Communications Julie Hasquet. "We have to meet the energy needs of our members, and so we are using natural gas since we don’t have the Bradley Lake hydro power."
Soon Chugach customers will start to see about a 3% increase to their utility bills. Hasquet says the average Chugach residential customer uses 600 kilowatt hours a month, for a bill of about $123. A 3% increase on that total would be $3.69.
"There’s no customer in the Chugach system that doesn't get hydro power from Bradley Lake when it's working," Hasquet said. "We use natural gas, we use hydro and we use wind. But natural gas is 75% or more of our daily use. So when we don't have our 10% or so of hydro, we still have to fill that need, so we’re filling it with natural gas. So there is no customer not impacted."
Other utility companies are still assessing what they'll do to fill the gap. Julie Estey with Matanuska Electric Association said via email:
"We are anticipating our COPA (Cost of Power Adjustment) going up 3-5%. COPA is about 40% our the total bill so that will not be the total bill increase. We are completing our final calculations this week for submission to the RCA next week. If approved by the RCA, the new rates will be effective October 1."
Julie Harris with Matanuska Light & Power also commented via email and said:
“The outage will impact the COPA portion of an ML&P’ customer’s bill (as compared to what it otherwise would be without the outage) due to the increased reliance on thermal generation. Also, ML&P will likely incur some of the cost to repair the line. But we don’t have cost estimates at this time, so we don’t yet know the exact impact to ML&P customers.”
As to when the lines will be back up and running, Thayer says the amount of damage first needs to be determined:
“We need to get in there and assess the damage to the transmission lines. Homer Electric is the operator of those transmission lines. They’re trying to assess that damage now. They have not been allowed in so we truly don't know the extent of it. A helicopter aerial of the transmission lines indicate it’s 10 to 15 miles of damage with up to 100 structures damaged but until we actually go in there on foot and know what the damage is, we don’t know the true cost or the actual time to repair it. But we're coming into winter which is not the best time necessarily to start a major construction project.”
Thayer says an estimate of damage is $1 million per every mile of transmission line. The cost to repair the lines remains unknown as does the time frame for when the lines will be back up and running. Thayer estimates anywhere between three months and a year.
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