The Thayer Creek Hydro project would use a 40-foot high dam to impound water over an area of 7 acres. The project would be built above an anadromous fish barrier, leaving salmon stocks unaffected. Authorized by Congress in the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, the project does not have to go through the FERC (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) process. Instead, a special use permit from the US Forest Service was required. The agency issued the permit on June 20, 2023. (Kootznoowoo, Inc. image)

A new hydroelectric project on Admiralty Island has the green light – four decades after it was approved by Congress.

In late June, the US Forest Service granted a special use permit for a small-scale hydro plant on Thayer Creek, near the town of Angoon. The local Alaska Native village corporation is now going after construction funding for the project, which is expected to fully replace costly diesel power.

The construction of a run-of-river hydro development in the Admiralty Island National Monument was authorized by ANILCA, the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

The project is being propelled by Kootznoowoo, Inc., Angoon’s village corporation. It’s unusual for a Native corporation to build a public utility. Jon Wunrow, Kootznoowoo’s director of natural resources, believes the right people were in the room as ANILCA was being hammered out by the presidential administration at the time.

“My hunch is that the leaders from Angoon who went to D.C. and met with (President) Jimmy Carter to kind of broker this part of the deal probably had representation from the village corp,” said Wunrow, “and I think that’s maybe how they (Kootznoowoo) got named.”

Thayer Creek is about three miles from Angoon. Over the past few years, Kootznoowoo has used a $5 million grant from the Alaska Energy Authority  to plan and engineer a dam, power plant, and utility tunnel back to town. 

Wunrow says two major barriers remain.

“One is we still have to complete what’s referred to as SHPO 106, which is the heritage work to make sure that there aren’t any historical or cultural items of significance that will be disturbed in any way,” he said.

 An archeological team from the US Forest Service is on site doing that work this summer.

The second barrier could take more time.

“And then we need funding,” he added.

Wunrow says Thayer Creek hydro is an “unfunded federal project,” authorized by Congress, but with no money to build it. Wunrow says this partly explains why Angoon never moved forward with the project – there was always an expectation that the federal government would follow through with the $30 million or so needed for construction.

Steadily rising fuel prices helped to change that attitude. Electricity in Angoon costs up to eight times more than in the Lower 48. The crunch motivated Kootznoowoo to take the initiative about three years ago to plan the project without federal support.

And then came President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which includes $1 billion for “Energy Improvements in Rural or Remote Areas.” The ERA program, for short, is tailored to build energy resilience and affordability in communities of under 10,000 people.

Wunrow says this is Angoon’s shot to connect with funding that’s four decades overdue.

“This is really the first, and potentially the only funding of this size, specifically for rural areas to do renewable energy,” Wunrow said. “So it’s kind of got Thayer written all over it. We’re hopeful.”

If it comes to fruition, Kootznoowoo will own the Thayer Creek hydro project, but it will be operated by the Inside Passage Electric Cooperative – or IPEC – which currently supplies electricity to Angoon from diesel. 

Affordable hydropower could revolutionize life for Angoon’s 500 residents. Thayer Creek’s 850 kilowatts would fully replace the existing diesel plant, which would be preserved as a back up. The total savings will be 250,000 gallons of fuel annually, worth about $1 million. The project would be built upstream of a natural salmon barrier, so no fish would be harmed.

“If we could just stabilize the cost of power, that would be a big win for Angoon,” says Wunrow. “But we’re also hoping it ushers in an era of electric motors: electric cars, electric boats, and heat pumps.”