WRANGELL — The two-day Southeast Alaska Power Agency board meeting became in part a prism through which to view debate over the future of the Thomas Bay Power Authority.
The TBPA debate has raised hackles both with SEAPA CEO Trey Acteson and board members, particularly the amount of misinformation SEAPA officials claim was circulated during a Sept. 24 meeting of the Wrangell Borough Assembly. Nor are factual inaccuracies limited to that assembly meeting, officials say. They cited a letter from Ketchikan Public Utilities to the Mayor, included with information provided at the Sept. 24 meeting, which claimed in part that a merger between TBPA and SEAPA could lead to a $53 rate charge for Ketchikan rate-payers.
The claims aren’t true, Acteson told the board.
“The City of Ketchikan also has experienced some challenges with misinformation regarding the TBPA,” he said. “This is the type of stuff that gets out there and gets in the media and people start believing this stuff when it’s actually not factual.”
Acteson has undertaken a campaign to correct what he says are factual errors in the debate.
At least some errors appear to have come from SEAPA board members themselves. In an e-mail to the Sentinel, Wrangell board member Brian Ashton claimed the board had been asked to consider rate increases twice in the past.
Not true, said Petersburg representative Joe Nelson.
“I don’t think that’s true,” he said. “I’m the one that has brought up looking at our rates as opposed to a rebate. We’re looking at a rate decrease, not a rate increase. I’m not aware that we’ve ever considered a rate increase.”
Wholesale power sales between SEAPA and public utilities are composed of two parts: the annual wholesale rate, determined in part by the cost of making electricity at Wrangell’s Tyee Lake and Ketchikan’s Swan Lake and annual rebates SEAPA provides to its member communities. Nelson says he had asked the board twice before to consider abolishing the annual rebates in favor of a lower wholesale rate.
“A rebate is essentially – what you’re doing – is lowering the wholesale power price,” he said. “So why not do it on a long-term basis so that the power companies, for instance, can go through the budgeting in enough time to figure out whether we’re gonna have a rebate. Every budget session I’ve brought that up. I haven’t won one yet.”
Concerns about business led to the decision to remain with the status quo of rates and rebates, said Ketchikan representative Bob Siverston.
“By bouncing and yo-yoing on the rates, it’s hard to establish, for a business person in the community,” he said. “If you keep those rates flat, they can plan it.”
Possible rate increases may have led to the misperception, Siverston said, but those rates were in the context of the distant future.
Andy Donato, the Ketchikan representative, said the KPU memo lacked some words that might have made the memo seem less threatening to SEAPA rate-payers.
“It stated that there would be a one-time charge to rate holders,” he said. “The preceding words that didn’t get put in there would be ‘analogous to’ or ‘equivalent to.’ If you put those two words in before that in that sentence, it all makes sense.”
The disagreement between KPU information and SEAPA information can make it hard for board members to understand what’s true, Ashton said.
“It sounds like two polarized positions here,” he said. “We have a big dog that’s KPU and we have a big dog that’s SEAPA and there seems to be some very, very strong disagreements on the fundamentals of what was said. That’s challenging to me as a board member. We have people who are leading these industries, and they’re blocks away from each other in Ketchikan.”
Officials characterized the exchange over TBPA as ‘tense.’ It came mid-way through Acteson’s CEO report to the board.
SEAPA doesn’t provide meeting minutes of sufficient detail to verify Nelson’s account or Ashton’s recollection.
Wrangell borough assembly members Pamella McCloskey, Daniel Blake and Julie Decker attended the meeting. Decker told the SEAPA board they were working to familiarize themselves with the issues surrounding SEAPA and TBPA. The assembly is seeking legal advice on how to proceed after the Petersburg assembly voted first not to fund their portion of TBPA operating costs, and then to endorse an Acteson plan for SEAPA to absorb TBPA.
A second tense exchange happened on Wednesday, when Donato faced a tough line of questioning from Petersburg representative Nelson. For a brief period last week, one of the generators at Ketchikan’s Swan Lake facility was offline for repairs, Donato told the board. As a result, the Tyee Lake project was drafted to make up the difference. KPU personnel first noticed an issue with a part of the generator called the exciter Oct. 9. Donato reported the issue to the SEAPA board the morning of Oct. 16.
“I don’t understand why KPU didn’t jump on that and get it fixed,” Nelson said.
“We did,” Donato responded.
“It’s not fixed,” Nelson said.
The exciter issue came during a critical time for both facilities. Operators at either facility use the wet Southeast fall to build up water storage for the winter, when precipitation falls as snow, and electric heater use can cause demand to skyrocket. Both dams build up to what energy officials call “spill,” or the point at which water flows over the top of the dam in preparation for winter. With Tyee generating power to make up the difference, it would get to spill slower than it would otherwise. When KPU officials examined the exciter, they found the problem did not recur, Donato said later. Swan Lake officials put the generator back online Oct. 15, one day before Donato informed the SEAPA board about the issue.
The generator was offline from Oct. 11, and officials did not expect the slower fill rate to affect the availability of water for the coming winter, Donato said.
In other business, the SEAPA board voted 5-0 to approve a project to record the history of the organization. They also voted 5-0 to hire a board of consultants to aid the process of licensing projects.
Board members voted 5-0 to approve the first phase of a construction project that will eventually become more than 100 helipads along the Swan Lake-Tyee Lake intertie. The pads are needed to perform maintenance in otherwise inaccessible areas, Acteson said.
The next SEAPA meeting will be Dec. 17 in Ketchikan.