Wasn’t the Susitna-Watana Hydro Project studied in the 1980s? Why is Alaska pursuing a project that was previously studied, yet never constructed?

The hydropower potential of the Susitna River has been studied since the early 1950s. In 1980 the Alaska Power Authority (now Alaska Energy Authority) began comprehensive study of the feasibility of a Susitna River hydropower project.  In 1983 the Alaska Power Authority filed for a license with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and amended the application in 1985 for a two-dam project. Three-phases of construction would have stretched over 20 years.  Because of the size, the 1980s project would have produced much more power than needed. The state eventually decided to pull its license application, primarily because of the low cost and ample supply of oil and gas.

The energy picture has changed dramatically from the 1980s. Alaska’s energy infrastructure is ageing and existing gas-fired generation units will be retired in the coming years. Alaska ranks the fifth highest in U.S. energy costs and remains reliant on volatile-priced fossil fuels.  The 2010 state energy policy set the renewable energy goal of 50 percent renewable power by 2025 and the Alaska Legislature unanimously authorized the Alaska Energy Authority to pursue Susitna-Watana Hydro in 2011.

Today, Susitna-Watana Hydro is more appropriately sized to meet the Railbelt’s energy needs. It is a smaller project with one dam near the Watana site on the Susitna River and construction would last about eight years. Susitna-Watana Hydro will generate 2,800,000-megawatt hours (MWh) of electricity annually, meeting roughly 50 percent of the entire Railbelt’s electricity demands. The current project is using the data obtained in the 1980s as a baseline for dozens of additional studies to determine the project’s optimum design and operating plan, including environmental protection.

Once online, Susitna-Watana Hydro will be an important piece of Alaska’s energy infrastructure providing clean, reliable and stable-priced energy to Alaskans and Alaska businesses for the next 100 years.