Doubling Down on Small-Scale Hydro - Government that Works

Panorama of downtown Harbor & Heart Lake. Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

Panorama of downtown Harbor & Heart Lake. Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

by Gary Hennigh, Kings Cove, Alaska

I’ve come a long way from rural Pennsylvania where I began my life to where I am today as city administrator for the remotely located community of King Cove, Alaska. It is a place deserving of extreme adjectives like ruggedly beautiful, wind-lashed, fog-shrouded and spectacularly wild. Bears roam here. Tundra swans graze here. Migratory birds use their finely tuned GPS and find us every spring and every fall, arriving to feed on the eelgrass that is in abundance here.

MAP of king cove. Graphic courtesy of Gary Hennigh.

Located on the Alaska Peninsula, King Cove is 625 air miles southwest of Anchorage. Perched between actively volcanic mountains and the vast expanse of the North Pacific Ocean, it is a place where land cedes ground reluctantly to the sea. Buried in the earth are the bones of Aleut ancestors whose quiet but powerful testimony speaks to how very long Aleut people have lived here. So it should surprise no one when 15 years into the 21st century, this place is an impressive example of what adaptation to one’s environment looks like after long practice. As Mayor Henry Mack has often noted: “Aleuts know a thing or two about how to survive – we’ve had to. We’ve always known the land and water were our partners in that effort, not our rivals.”

Our community was settled in 1911 when Pacific American Fisheries built a cannery on the sand spit between King Cove Bay & Lagoon, seeking to capitalize on the rich fishing in the area. This permanent settlement began with ten Euro-Aleut families and quickly grew into a vibrant town. Even as Territorial leaders lobbied for statehood in 1949, King Cove was busy becoming a second-class city. In 1974, King Cove became a first class city, adopted a strong mayor-council form of government and in 1976 hired our first city administrator.

With a population of 910, King Cove is the second largest community in the Aleutians East Borough (i.e. county form of local government) and one of the largest Aleut communities in Alaska. King Cove is a progressive waterfront community that benefits from year-round fisheries and is home to Peter Pan Seafoods, the largest wild salmon cannery in North America. (Peter Pan Seafoods doesn’t currently connect to our power grid and uses their own diesel-generated power.)

King Cove is a place where creative problem-solving means using what is already on hand in the local environment. Ours is an impressive track record for finding solutions that compliment a centuries-long partnership with the shoreline and the sea. So looking through that lens, it is truly a natural development that a renewable energy dream transformed quickly into a working plan for a run-of-a-nearby-river hydroelectric plant. But appreciated through the reality of what the world looked like when we first got started, it is the most unlikely of success stories.

It began in the 1970s when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) first identified the hydroelectric potential in the Delta Creek Valley. In early 1990, state and city leaders again reviewed the earlier COE reports and begun to dream big about hydroelectric power. The price of diesel then was a modest $.50/gallon. No one in rural Alaska was exploring renewable energy and certainly not hydro in a community with the isolated geography of King Cove. But in meetings with city leaders it was agreed that the price of diesel was only headed up and likely to stay there. We made the decision that there was a greater risk in doing nothing, and so we set about finding the technical experts who could tell us if this project was worth pursuing. While it was certainly a risky and expensive proposition, we were motivated to find a future that was as free as it could be from the roller coaster ride of the fossil fuel market.

Dam Impound Structure. Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

Dam Impound Structure. Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

We developed a solid relationship with HDR Alaska (a planning & engineering firm) in shouldering the risk and proceeded to conduct further studies, building on the earlier COE information. Early results were so promising that city leaders began researching grant opportunities to move from dreaming about it to making it a reality. On the day our 800 kilowatt (kW) turbine and generator arrived in town by barge, it was starting to feel very real, but it was when the impound structure, penstock, transmission lines, and powerhouse were completed that we knew it was really going to happen. Then on a late summer day in 1994, in a truly electric moment, Delta Creek Hydroelectric Project came on-line. Almost from day one, the Delta Creek plant met over 50 percent of the city’s power needs, even as our power demands increased.

Today, Delta Creek provides over 2.5 MW (megawatts) of our annual 4.7 MW demand for energy.
This hydroelectric power has meant 20 years’ worth of dividends to King Cove residents - approximately $1,000/household/year - from a renewable source of power that flows, quite literally, into their homes and businesses. (Since the hydropower came online, the cost of a kWh has been 12 to 15 cents/kWh cheaper for residents and local businesses, resulting in an average monthly savings of $80 - $100/month.) City leaders have had the great satisfaction of watching the results of our planning improve the lives of our citizens on a daily basis. Residents recognize that their lives are better because of government and not despite it.

Waterfall Creek. Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

Waterfall Creek. Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

So we are on to the realization of our next dream: a second hydro project. Not satisfied with just one source of low-cost power, our second renewable project is well underway. Due diligence is completed, and our engineering and technical hurdles are behind us. Since Waterfall Creek is a tributary of Delta Creek, we will be able to use existing infrastructure. We will expand the existing powerhouse to work for both projects, and the existing transmission lines stand ready to deliver the power. Waterfall Creek will provide us with another 1MW of renewable power per year. Together with Delta Creek, more than 75 percent (3.5MW) of the community’s annual energy needs will be met with renewable energy. Because of this, over 250,000 gallons of diesel fuel that will not be burned every year for decades to come, making King Cove a unique energy-smart community by any standards.

It is only appropriate to acknowledge the considerable and visionary help we have had along the way. Without our State of Alaska and Aleutians East Borough partners who decided to invest well and early in the business of energy efficiency, we may never have come this far. The State’s Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) fund has enabled us to invest our own funds with the added security of having significant grant money solidly by our side.

While we remain fully committed to Waterfall Creek, low oil prices have hit the State of Alaska’s budget hard and the additional funding that we thought was coming our way to finish the project this construction season is tabled indefinitely. However, the city has made a conscious decision to push forward with construction knowing that we will likely incur additional long-term debt. In summary, the Waterfall Creek projected is expected to cost $6.6 million. Fifty percent of the project will be funded through grants by the state and Aleutians East Borough and the other 50 percent will be funded through cash and debt by the City of King Cove.

Also, we are proud to walk our conservation talk in a multitude of ways. We have retrofitted most of our public facilities. All of our street and harbor lighting now use energy-saving LEDs, reducing demand by about 100,000 kWh/year. We successfully repurposed recoverable heat from our diesel system (i.e. when diesel power is needed to supplement our seasonal hydro energy) and are using “surplus” hydro in late spring and fall in an electric boiler for conversion to space heating purposes for several of our public buildings. These processes save an additional 35,000 gallons of diesel fuel from being burned per year.

Finally, we are conducting additional wind studies in search of wind turbine locations that might work for us. We already know we have class 6 winds, but with a lot of turbidity. And we will follow tidal technology as it matures, looking for any application that complements our environment. There is no idea we will not consider if it might contribute to a cleaner and leaner energy future. We think dreaming big, planning well and practicing budget discipline is a formula that secures for our grandchildren a viable community powered by clean, dependable, renewable and reusable energy.

It is not coincidental that our venture into the world of small hydro-electricity is a reflection of Aleut culture and values. Their survival well beyond the 21st century is made more likely by projects like these. Two dynamic, well-lit harbors, a vibrant downtown, and a reliable power source are all music to the ears of our residents. And it is last because it most certainly is not least, we exemplify through means that are measurable, our dedication to cleaner air and a cleaner ocean. In other words, we honor the Aleut way, which is to take care of the environment because the environment takes care of us.

There is nothing better, as a planner or an administrator or as an Aleut, than to reach a moment of knowing that we are leaving a place better than where we found it. It is government at its most inspired. And to anyone out there who is reading this and wondering can this be done in your community? I answer a qualified yes: Gain consensus with your constituents and their leaders. Demonstrate administrative competence. Hire engineers who are smart, do their homework and willingly identify as unapologetic dreamers. Find financial partners who will be in your corner over the long haul. Then step off what looks like a cliff but which will eventually deliver you onto the foundation of something enduring. Pause and repeat.

Panarama of downtown Harbor Heat Lake. Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

Panarama of downtown Harbor Heat Lake. Photo provided by Gary Hennigh.

Gary Hennigh has been the Administrator for the City of King Cove, Alaska for the last 25 years, except for a 15-month hiatus in 2004/5 as the Deputy Planning Director for the County of Kauai (Hawaii). Gary was one of the founders of the Alaska APA Chapter and early advocate for joining The Western Planner in the 1980s.

Published in the July/August 2015 Issue

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