System engineer Bob Dryden described the situation.

“We are getting up to the point where everything in the system is right up to the max. We can’t take a Green Lake unit down now to maintain it, tune it – to do anything, without running diesel. We are just so short on capacity. And the transmission line – we absolutely cannot take the transmission line out. There is not a time of the year – not a moment in the year now – where we can cover the town load with diesel.”

The conversation about loads was prompted by a $30,000 line item in the electrical department budget for air quality permitting. Up until now, the Jarvis Street diesel generators have been used only as backup in the event Sitka’s hydro plants go offline. But on several occasions over the winter, the department was forced to supplement the electrical supply with the backup generators. A new air quality permit would be required if Sitka burned the 3 – 5 million gallons of diesel fuel the department projects may be necessary each year to meet the growing load until the new Blue Lake project comes on line in 2015.

Dryden placed blame for the circumstances on Sitka’s low electric rates, which create an incentive for residential consumers to switch to electric heat when oil prices run high. Dryden said that “massive” amounts of people had converted to electric heat over the last several years.

Asked by the assembly about how to address the crisis, Dryden did not avoid a tough answer.

 “This is an unpopular concept maybe, but one of our real problems is that for a certain class of consumer our rates our too low. Meaning we don’t give proper price signals to those who want to electric heat their homes. The reality is that if you’re building a house, or you’re going to remodel, if the price of electric energy is 10-percent less than the price of oil, guess what you’re going to do? Or, even worse, if the fellow goes down to Spenard Builders and buys a heater for $35. He just made us spend $5,000 to make it run. He will pay for that somehow. Somebody will pay for it. It’s an incorrect decision, in other words, when you offer something too cheap, then it all gets used up.”

Dryden said that at the current growth of electrical loads in Sitka, it was conceivable that the new Blue Lake turbine “could be used up before it is even turned on.”

Dryden alerted the assembly to several items not in the budget that the electrical department could use over the next few years: foremost was a new 15 megawatt diesel turbine to help cover Sitka’s load when the hydro plants were offline. Dryden said that Sitka was reaching the point where a transmission line break like last fall’s would result in rolling blackouts in all parts of town – not just either end of the road system.

But it was not all bad news. Dryden said there were some real success stories that have come out of using intelligent price signals, and people were very responsive to the idea of conservation.

“Conservation is always the least expensive way to meet our needs,” he said. Dryden was also encouraged by advances in heat pump technology. He thought fifty or so homeowners had taken advantage of the recent availability of simple air-source heat pumps.

“And it’s just like some sort of Gospel celebration. Everybody says this is so cool. What’s happened is that heat pump technology and the price brackets have come around to where you have the big companies – GE, Toshiba – all the big manufacturers producing a product that’s as reliable, cost-effective, high-quality, and trouble-free as buying a freezer or refrigerator.”

Dryden said the department was interested in promoting the availability of heat pumps as a way of using electrical energy to displace the use of oil, but at a fraction of the energy use of traditional electric heaters. Dryden said he also saw a growing interest locally in the installation and service of heat pumps. He called it “excellent, excellent stuff.”
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