WRANGELL — During Wrangell’s cold snap in mid-January when temperatures dipped to zero degrees, residents were cranking up their heat. As a result of that jump in electrical power usage, the Tyee Hydroelectric Plant near Wrangell maxed out, forcing the town to turn on diesel generators to continue to provide energy.
Members of the Borough Assembly and Thomas Bay Power Authority, which operates Tyee, held an informal meeting Feb. 21 to discuss how to avoid that “crisis” situation in the future.
“That was the key that tripped the switch that says we have to have a plan for this because this is maybe not going to be acceptable to all the communities what’s happened,” said Paul Southland of Thomas Bay Power Authority (TBPA) who currently serves as the interim general manager for Tyee.
Wrangell and Petersburg share power coming from Tyee. Jeremy Maxand, Wrangell’s mayor, who also sits on the board of directors for Southeast Alaska Power Agency (SEAPA), which owns Tyee, said that power sharing has never posed a serious issue as Wrangell has typically had a surplus of energy.
However, Wrangell’s electric demand is now greater than before as residents convert to electric heating sources and local industry continues to grow.
“We’re bumping up against our maximum,” Maxand said.
The small group, gathered at the Feb. 21 informal meeting, agreed equally splitting Tyee’s output between Wrangell and Petersburg was the best solution. That split of power creates a very strong incentive for each community to do what it can to conserve energy and be energy efficient, Maxand said.
Clay Hammer, superintendent for Wrangell Municipal Light and Power and a TBPA commissioner, said he has seen the town’s winter electrical usage more than double in the last year because of electric heating. Summer electrical usage is also steadily increasing because of the power required for the local fish processing industry.
Hammer said Wrangell is starting to use the same amount of electrical power as Petersburg — a town with around 600 more people than Wrangell, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
“We’re starting to run neck and neck with them,” Hammer said. “This has never been an issue. In the time I have been with this department, for 14 years now, this conversation has never come up, there has been so much surplus there has never been an issue.”
Now that it is an issue, Borough Assemblyman Don McConachie said Wrangell and Petersburg need to determine what should be done about it and ensure both communities have power, he asked.
“How are we going to make sure that each community, when we come to a high load position, what each community is going to do to satisfy reduction in the utilization of that?” McConachie questioned.
Should another cold snap like this year’s occur, Maxand said Wrangell and Petersburg should be coordinating efforts to try to use as little diesel power as possible. Both communities also need to work together to develop the next hydroelectric project in order to provide additional energy for the demand that is likely to increase during future generations, he said.
Hammer agreed, saying Wrangell’s energy loads are continuing to grow and it’s important to determine how the energy sharing between the two communities will occur.
“We need to get it going now on how we are going to share in the future,” he said. “And this little discussion here is going to be the first step.”