By Crystal Enkvist
For The Cordova Times
Ballot Measure 1, better known as the “Stand for Salmon” initiative, will negatively impact Alaska’s electric ratepayers by increasing regulations on hydropower and other infrastructure in a way that will likely raise electric rates and make future electric utility projects uneconomical.
The harmful impacts on hydropower from passage of Ballot Measure 1 should not be underestimated. Electric utilities in Alaska that rely on hydropower, or are planning to construct hydropower projects, will encounter a duplicative regulatory burden leading to increased costs, project delays and, in some cases, the potential for power projects to be shelved because they no longer pencil out after the additional expenses are factored in.
This is an unacceptable impact to a state where significant steps are being made by electric utilities to stabilize or lower the cost of power with renewable energy. Licensing and relicensing of hydroelectric projects is already a highly regulated activity, and adding additional, unnecessary regulatory burdens under Ballot Measure 1 will hurt Alaska’s progression in power generation and delivery.
Let’s look at the facts: most hydro projects in the state fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an independent federal agency that regulates hydropower. The FERC process requires a stringent National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review, with input from all local, state, and federal agencies before issuing a license to a new or existing hydropower project. Fisheries impacts are a major part of any hydropower license permitting process, with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, National Marine Fisheries Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service actively participating on any licensing efforts regardless of land ownership. These projects are permitted using the Anadromous Water’s Catalogue, which is routinely updated to protect salmon habitat.
It can take between seven and 10 years to license a hydropower project under the FERC process, and it already costs millions of dollars. If Ballot Measure 1 passes, the new law will add an additional layer to hydropower licensing that does not exist today. The regulations under the new law will increase costs for licensing new and existing hydropower projects and will likely stop some development of hydropower.
Hydropower projects in Alaska provide carbon-free, stable-priced electric generation for Alaskans. Many of the hydropower projects in the state are run-of-river projects owned and operated by small, non-profit electric utilities. The regulations proposed in Ballot Measure 1 will be financially crushing to many utilities in the state, which will lead to higher electric rates for many Alaskans.
Electric utilities in Alaska have been on the forefront of integrating renewables, and the current regulatory system works well to protect the environment during project construction and operation. It is clear that the economic impacts of Ballot Measure 1 were not considered during its drafting.
It’s not only hydropower-reliant electric utilities that will be harmed by the initiative.
The initiative would deem all bodies of water in the state, regardless of their actual status, as important anadromous fish habitat, ignoring the state’s well-established Anadromous Waters Catalogue. This means activities such as interconnecting communities in Western Alaska or installing a utility pole for service to a homeowner will incur costly required studies if any body of water is impacted, even if the body of water could not harbor fish. This provision is yet another aspect of Ballot Measure 1 that poses a threat to Alaskans’ electric rates.
Ballot Measure 1 is not the right approach to protecting salmon in Alaska. The effects of the initiative are too unknown, untested, and pose an unreasonable risk to electric rates in Alaska. Projects pursued by electric utilities are already strictly and robustly regulated. Adding additional layers of regulation in a haphazard initiative is a dangerous approach that electric consumers should be aware of and wary of before they vote. The cost of electric power in Alaska is already some of the highest in the country, a yes vote on Ballot Measure 1 will make it higher.
Crystal Enkvist is the executive director of Alaska Power Association, the statewide trade association for electric utilities.