Skagway could solve our power shortfall

Skagway is looking to build a second hydroelectric station. That has Yukon Energy very excited. "It's a real win-win," said Michael Brandt, vice-president of utility.

Skagway is looking to build a second hydroelectric station.

That has Yukon Energy very excited.

“It’s a real win-win,” said Michael Brandt, vice-president of utility.

Skagway is desperate for energy to power cruise ships in the summer, while Yukon Energy needs to find a way to provide more electricity to its customers in the winter when water levels are low.

Both the town and the utility are hoping that the West Creek hydro project could be the solution to their problems.

“It’s a natural fit,” said Brandt. “We’ve got common issues and the more we look at it the better it gets.”

At 25 megawatts, the West Creek hydro project would more than double the generating capacity of Skagway.

But with 350 ships coming in every summer – each one of which uses up to 11 megawatts of power – and two new power-hungry mines coming online in the Yukon soon, there’s no shortage of customers.

Right now, cruise ships generate their own electricity by burning fuel.

“The major concern here is that cruise-ship emissions are causing some damage in the valley,” said Stan Selmer, Skagway’s mayor.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mandated earlier this year that ships switch to a more environmentally friendly, low-sulphur fuel while docked in port. But while it’s cleaner burning, it’s still far from clean.

“They started using this better fuel in August, which will make some difference, but it’s not the whole answer,” said Selmer. “The whole answer is getting them hooked up to shore power when they show up.”

And that means getting a new hydro station built.

The West Creek project is still a long way off.

First, a feasibility study needs to be done to ensure it’s viable.

The Alaska Power and Telephone Company did a study of the site in the early 1980s, but 10 years ago a moraine collapsed and flooded the area, so there is some concern that the previous study may be out of date.

Skagway has tried for five of the last six years to get the Alaskan government to pony up some cash to do the study. It’s willing to put up $84,000 but it still needs $236,000 from the Alaska Energy Authority to get the ball rolling.

The big difference this year is that Yukon Energy and the Yukon government have shown interest in the project, which has Selmer more optimistic than ever about the prospect of success.

“By having the right people in the room we hope to have the Alaska Energy Authority make the right decision this year,” he said.

In June, the town signed a memorandum of understanding with Yukon Energy to work together on future energy projects, and earlier this month representatives of utilities and governments from both sides of the border met to discuss the project.

If the project goes ahead it would mean building a transmission line from Whitehorse to Skagway.

Telecom companies on both sides of the border have expressed some interest in using the route to add redundancy to their networks, and for Yukon Energy it would open up opportunities for other small-scale hydro projects along the way that wouldn’t otherwise be viable, said Brandt.

It would also get the utility one step closer to hooking into the B.C. power grid.

“Alaska is working to connect to the B.C. grid and we’d like to connect to the grid as well. It turns out the closest way to B.C. might be through Alaska,” he said.

The Alaska Energy Authority isn’t expected to make a decision on the funding for feasibility study until December. If it decides in Skagway’s favour, the funding request would still have to get the approval of the state legislature before the project can move forward.

“It’s still early days, but the governor’s office and the premier’s office are bringing a lot of resources to bear on this, so there’s a lot of reason to peruse this,” said Brandt.

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