Alaska’s Untapped Potential

Throughout North America, dozens of new hydropower projects are being proposed, planned, constructed or put into operation. One location offering the greatest opportunity for new hydropower development is the state of Alaska in the U.S.

By Russell W. Ray

High energy costs, abundant resources and a strong standard for renewable generation in the state of Alaska have created a wealth of opportunity for hydro developers. The state is home to more than 365,000 miles of rivers and 33,000 miles of coastline, making it an epicenter for hydropower development in the U.S. In this article, we share (beginning on page 10) examples of Alaska projects that best illustrate the types of new developments being pursued in the state.

However, Alaska isn’t the only place in North America where new hydro facilities are being pursued. Beginning on page 15, we offer snapshots of some of the new development activity occurring in both the U.S. and Canada.

Alaskan opportunities

Dependent on expensive heating fuel and diesel-fired generation, Alaska has identified more than 200 promising sites for hydropower development and pledged to produce 50 percent of the state’s electricity from renewable resources by 2025. To get there, the state will rely largely on its roaring rivers and strong ocean tides and currents.

Tapping Alaska’s vast hydro potential is a major element in Alaska’s plan to create jobs and provide much needed electricity to isolated communities throughout a state that is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined.

“We have more energy potential than just about anywhere in the world,” said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Our problem is how we harness it when we’re looking at economies of scale.”

Alaska accounts for 40 percent of the United States’ potential to generate electricity from rivers, according to the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Already, hydropower accounts for 24 percent of the state’s electricity consumption.
Alaska accounts for 40 percent of the United States’ potential to generate electricity from rivers, according to the Alaska Center for Energy and Power. Already, hydropower accounts for 24 percent of the state’s electricity consumption.

For Alaska, small hydropower projects represent the best way to supply electricity to scores of small, isolated villages across the state, said Murkowski, sponsor of the Hydropower Improvement Act, a bill pending before the full Senate.

“It’s clean, it’s efficient and it’s inexpensive,” she said.

Best of all, it would displace diesel-fired generation, an expensive and polluting form of generation widely used in villages throughout the Railbelt region.

For hydropower developers, Alaska is an ideal place to build new projects because of the state’s high energy costs, abundant resources and a state law establishing an ambitious goal for renewable generation.

Last year, the Alaska Center for Energy and Power estimated that Alaska accounts for 40 percent of the U.S.’s potential to generate electricity from rivers and 90 percent of the nation’s potential to produce power from tidal resources.

But the potential of Alaska’s hydrokinetic resources will not be met until the industry can prove the technology can withstand Alaska’s harsh and turbulent conditions. Researchers and developers are testing several technologies in hopes of resolving issues related to anchoring, installation, performance and viability.

Already, hydropower accounts for 24 percent of the state’s total electricity consumption, with 50 hydroelectric facilities that produce more than 1.3 million MWh each year, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Speaking to members of the National Hydropower Association during a regional meeting in September, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell said that the construction of new hydropower capacity is central to the state’s plan to create economic opportunity for Alaskans.

“Alaska’s roaring rivers can light and heat our homes during the dark winter nights,” Parnell said. “Hydropower will put us far down the path to achieving our goal of 50 percent renewable energy for electricity by 2025.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, said hydropower should be the heart of any comprehensive plan to increase renewable energy. “If you want to be serious about renewable energy, hydropower has to be part of the discussion,” Begich said. “Nowhere is that more true than Alaska, which holds over a third of our country’s untapped hydropower.”

Several hydropower projects are in some stage of development throughout Alaska’s Railbelt area, including a 600-MW project on the Susitna River, several tidal projects in the Cook Inlet and a 5-MW project near Hydaburg on Reynolds Creek.

Hydro Review examined these and other Alaska projects that best illustrate the types of new developments that are being pursued in the state. What follows is a description of those projects.

More than 200 sites have been identified for hydropower development in Alaska, including the Susitna River, the site of a proposed 600-MW hydro project.
More than 200 sites have been identified for hydropower development in Alaska, including the Susitna River, the site of a proposed 600-MW hydro project.

Reynolds Creek

The 5-MW Reynolds Creek project is under construction about 10 miles east of Hydaburg, on Prince of Wales Island.

Construction on this project began in 2010 and is expected to be completed late in 2012. Haida Corp. owns 75 percent of the project, and Alaska Power & Telephone owns 25 percent.

The facility will use 750 feet of head to produce, on average, 19.3 million kWh of electricity annually. Alaska Power Co. will construct and operate the facility and purchase the power.

The island is already home to two hydropower projects: 4.5-MW Black Bear Lake and 2.3-MW South Fork. But most of the island’s electricity is diesel-fired.

The project includes a 28-foot-long, 6-foot-high diversion structure, a 3,200-foot-long penstock, a 5-MW powerhouse and a 12-mile transmission line that will interconnect with existing transmission. The project also will create 600 acre-feet of storage at Rich’s Pond and Lake Mellen.

Whitman Lake

Construction of the 4.6-MW Whitman Lake project near Ketchikan in southeast Alaska is expected to begin in July 2012, and the plant should be up and running by December 2013.

The 39-foot-high, 220-foot-long concrete gravity arch dam and hydro project will include two 2,450-foot-long penstocks that lead to each generating unit at Whitman Dam. The city of Ketchikan expects to award the general construction contract for the project in May 2012.

The project will produce, on average, 16,500 MWh annually and will include two turbine-generators with a maximum capacity of 180 cfs, a 40-foot-wide ogee spillway and a 1,500-foot-long transmission line.

Mahoney Lake

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued a license for the 9.6-MW Mahoney Lake project, five mile northeast of Ketchikan, in January 1998.

But the project was put on hold and the license was stayed until a 57-mile-long, 138-kV transmission line could be built.

The transmission line has been completed and the developers — the City of Saxman, Alaska Power & Telephone and Cape Fox Corp. — have reestablished a public-private partnership to build the $46 million project. The partnership is now seeking funding for the project.

While the start of construction is still uncertain, the developers hope to complete the project in June 2016. It will be built on Upper Mahoney Lake about 5 miles from Saxman and 3 miles from the Swan-Tyee and Beaver Falls transmission lines.

Officials estimate the Mahoney hydro project will displace about 46,000 MWh of diesel-fired generation or 3.1 million gallons of diesel each year.

The project will not require the construction of a dam. It will include a lake tap, which would enter Upper Mahoney Lake about 75 feet below the surface via a vertical shaft and two tunnels to carry water from Upper Mahoney Lake to the powerhouse. The powerhouse will be built above Lower Mahoney Lake near the base of a large waterfall. The project also includes more than 4 miles of underground and overhead transmission lines.


First conceptualized in the 1980s, the proposed 330-MW Chakachmna project would be built on the west side of Cook Inlet by TDX Power and would provide 1,600 MWh annually to the Railbelt grid.

The $1.6 billion project, which is still awaiting approval by FERC, would use the lake’s elevation to generate power by sending water down a 10-mile tunnel from the eastern end of the lake to an underground power plant on the north side of McArthur River. The project also calls for the construction of a 40-mile transmission line.

The project would divert water from the Chakachamna River to the McArthur Drainage Basin.

Officials estimate the Chakachamna project would provide about a quarter of Alaska’s current demand for electricity.


In April 2011, Alaska lawmakers and Gov. Parnell approved legislation authorizing the Alaska Energy Authority to move forward with the 600-MW Susitna-Watana project.

The 700-foot-high dam would be built about 15 miles upstream of Devil’s Canyon Rapids, halfway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, and would generate on average 2,600 GWh of electricity annually. The dam would create a 39-mile-long, 2-mile-wide reservoir.

Officials estimate the $5 billion project could provide up to half of the Alaskan Railbelt’s electricity needs at affordable prices. The project has been deemed necessary to meet the state’s new standard for renewable generation.

“To meet the state’s goal of having half of Alaska’s electricity generated by renewable resources by 2025, we must invest in a large-scale hydro project,” Gov. Parnell said.

The Susitna project was initially proposed in the 1970s as a two-dam project, but it was shelved in the 1980s because fuel was inexpensive at the time and state resources were limited. Since then, energy costs and oil prices have skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, the project continues to work its way through the licensing process at FERC.

Connelly Lake

The 12-MW Connelly Lake project received a preliminary permit from FERC and is in the design-feasibility stage.

The $32 million project is being developed 15 miles northeast of Haines by Alaska Power & Telephone. The 48-foot-high dam would be built where Connelly Lake flows into Chilkoot River. The lake has an elevation of about 1,500 feet. The dam would create a 160-acre reservoir.

The project would include a 6,200-foot-long penstock, two 6-MW turbine generators and a 14-mile, 34.5-kV transmission line. The penstock would carry water to the powerhouse near the Chilkoot River, where the water would be discharged back into the river.

Other North American projects

While hydro developers find much promise in Alaska, this isn’t the only location for new development. Throughout the U.S. and Canada, we found hydro development under way. The following paragraphs provide examples.

AMP projects

Three of six run-of-river hydroelectric plants are under construction at existing dams on the Ohio River. American Municipal Power is building the projects to increase its use of renewable power and decrease its dependency on the volatile wholesale power market.

Voith Hydro will supply turbines and generators for the first four run-of-river facilities under a $420 million contract.

The six run-of-river projects are: 72-MW Smithland, 105-MW Meldahl, 48-MW Robert C. Byrd, 35-MW Willow Island, 84-MW Cannelton, and 49-MW Pike Island.

Youngs Creek

The Snohomish County Public Utility District has officially opened a new hydropower project, the 7.5-MW Youngs Creek facility, near Sultan in the state of Washington.

The $29 million project, which took about three years to build, can generate enough power for about 2,000 homes. The dam, 12 feet tall and 65 feet wide, is the first dam built in Washington in nearly 20 years.

Lower Mattagami

Ontario Power Generation is adding 440 MW to its Lower Mattagami Hydropower Complex in northeastern Ontario, increasing capacity by 90 percent to 924 MW.

In addition to adding more units to existing power stations at Little Long, Harmon and Kipling, OPG is replacing a fourth generation station, Smoky Falls, with a three-unit, 215-MW powerhouse.

Alstom Hydro is providing the project three turbine generator sets under a C$110 million (US$108 million) contract signed last year. All three units will be installed at the new Smoky Falls station. “This is a good example of redevelopment work that utilizes the best of Alstom’s capabilities,” said Claude Lambert, president and chief executive officer of Alstom Hydro North America.


The Wuskwatim Project, a 200-MW run-of-river generating station under construction on the Burntwood River in northern Manitoba, will begin generating power early next year.

“We expect the first of three units to be commissioned in February,” said Ed Wojczynski, the manager of project development for Manitoba Hydro. “It’s a project that involves essentially no flooding and it’s a daily run-of-river. It’s a world-class gem.”

The low-head design of the project will create less than one half of a square kilometer of flooding, the least amount of flooding of any hydro project in northern Manitoba.


The 2.35-MW Bowersock project on the Kansas River is tripling its capacity with a $20 million expansion that is expected to be up and running by September 2012.

Bowersock Mills & Power Co. in Lawrence, Kan., is adding turbine-generators in a new powerhouse on the north end of Bowersock Dam. The 5-MW expansion includes the installation of four turbine-generators. The expansion was licensed by FERC in August 2010, just six months after the application was submitted.


Last fall, construction began on a 335-MW powerhouse immediately downstream of Waneta Dam and its existing powerhouse on the Pend d’Oreille River.

The new powerhouse is expected to begin commercial production in the spring of 2015. So far, the project remains on schedule, as workers move forward on the excavation of the intake, powerhouse and tunnels for the C$900 million (US$885 million) project.

The new powerhouse will share the existing dam’s hydraulic head and will produce power from flow that would otherwise be spilled. The project is being developed by Fortis Inc. in partnership with Columbia Power Corp. and the Columbia Basin Trust.


Verdant Power has filed an application with FERC to install up to 30 tidal turbines in the East Channel of the East River in New York City.

The project would be the first tidal plant in the U.S. licensed to transmit energy onto the national grid.

Called the Roosevelt Island Tidal Energy (RITE) Project, the initiative has been Verdant Power’s signature effort to commercialize its Free Flow kinetic system, which utilizes three-bladed turbines deployed in fast-moving tides and rivers to generate energy.

Lower Churchill

The Lower Churchill Project calls for the construction of an 824-MW plant at Muskrat Falls, a 2,250-MW facility at Gull Island and 130 miles of subsea transmission that would carry the power around Quebec’s border to Nova Scotia, where it could then be exported to the U.S.

The proposed megaproject, downstream from the 5,428-MW Churchill Falls project, would produce nearly 17 TWh of electricity and offset more than 1 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

La Romaine

At the center of Quebec’s plan to boost export capacity to the U.S. is a 1,550-MW hydropower complex under construction on the Romaine River. The C$6.5 billion (US$6.4 billion) La Romaine project along Quebec’s Lower North Shore is expected to be up and running by 2020.

The project calls for the construction of four generating stations capable of producing 8 TWh a year.

Most of the power will be exported to the U.S. Profits from those export sales could reach C$2 billion (US$1.97 billion) in the first 12 years, the province estimates.

Hydro-Quebec, the provincially owned utility, agreed to pay Alstom Hydro 70 million euro (US$98 million) to supply and install two 320-MW vertical Francis turbines and related generating equipment for the project on the Romaine River.


Canadian provincial utility BC Hydro is adding two 500-MW generators to the existing powerhouse at Mica Dam on the Columbia River, which was completed in 1977. Work is to cost of about C$1 billion (US$984 million), and construction began in May 2011. The project contractors are Andritz Hydro and Peter Kiewit Infrastructure Group. The additional units will boost the plant’s capacity 55 percent to 2,805 MW. Unit 5 is expected to be up and running by 2014 and Unit 6 by 2015.

Bear Creek

The Bear Creek project is a run-of-river development with two power stations, Upper Bear and Lower Bear, with a total capacity of 20 MW. The two stations, near the town of Sechelt, British Columbia, are 8 kilometers apart and will be connected to the BC Hydro Clowhom generating station via a new 138-kV tranmission line constructed in partnership with Hydromax Energy Ltd. Construction of the two projects began in July 2010. The Compact Hydro Division of Andritz Hydro provided the turbine-generator units for these two projects.

Forrest Kerr

The 195-MW Forrest Kerr project is under construction in British Columbia by AltaGas. Commercial operation of this run-of-river project on the Iskut River is scheduled for July 2014. It will deliver power to the grid via BC Hydro’s proposed 287-kV Northwest Transmission Line. Andriz Hydro is providing nine turbine-generating units for this facility.



Russell Ray is senior editor of Hydro Review.

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