State and local officials, including Gov. Bill Walker, gathered in Sitka on Friday (5-8-15) to formally dedicate the Blue Lake dam. The largest public works project in city history, it’s projected to meet the city’s electricity needs for the next thirty years.
Mayor Mim McConnell and Project Manager Dean Orbison did the honors, smashing a bottle of champagne against one of the brand new, bright blue turbines in Sitka’s Blue Lake power house.
[[Bottle breaks. Cheers.]]
Orbison: Let’s have some wieners!
The ceremony was followed by a barbecue.
It marked the end of a process that began years ago, as the city found itself maxing out the two dams that provide most of Sitka’s electricity, and burning expensive diesel — without much power to spare for expanding businesses.
The project broke ground in 2012. Two years later, the city has raised the Blue Lake dam by 83 feet, inundated more than 300 acres of rainforest, and added the three new turbines, which together added 27-percent more hydro capacity. That means, if all goes according to plan, Sitka will be running on rainfall for the next three decades.
Sitka Representative Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins called it a “declaration of independence.” And Governor Bill Walker said this kind of renewable energy is a model for the rest of the state.
“This is a great day, not just for Sitka. This is a great day for Alaska,” Walker said. He told the assembled crowd that stable energy costs are the key to a growing economy, and that more communities in Alaska need to liberate themselves from volatile energy sources like diesel.
“People love this project now, they’re going to really love it ten years from now,” Walker said. “You’re going to be absolute legends 30 years from now. Because you have stabilized the cost of energy.”
The project hasn’t been without controversy, especially as the price tag ballooned from an early construction estimate of $50-million to a final project cost of $142-million — or $158-million, if you include new backup diesel generators. Of that, the state has kicked in about $59-million. The city has borrowed to pay for the rest.
But city officials say the dam is worth every penny. And State Senator Bert Stedman recalled negotiating for those pennies in the legislature, as railbelt lawmakers sought billions for massive hydro projects like the proposed Susitna-Watana dam.
“So we stuck our hand up, and said, fine, we got a couple little hydro projects,” Stedman said. “We don’t want the billions, $8-billion you want in the railbelt. We just want some rounding errors, chump change, and we’ll get our little project — one of which was Blue Lake.”
Stedman, meanwhile, is already looking ahead to the next dam. He said he hopes Sitka’s economy grows so fast, it maxes out Blue Lake’s new capacity in half the time projected. This may have been the largest project in city history so far, but he said, to laughter, “I’m hoping when they bury me in the future, it’ll be number two. ”