Alaska Proposes Massive Dam on Wild River

Richard Leo

America's biggest dam in half a century has been proposed for the wild Susitna River, which drains the Mt. McKinley-topped Alaska Range. If built to its full 800 feet amidst currently roadless lands, the dam would be the eighth tallest on earth. The state-sponsored dam would produce just 280-300 megawatts of electricity, and cost at least $5-8 billion dollars.

The proposed dam will flood pristine wildlands in the Susitna River watershed.
The proposed dam will flood pristine wildlands in the Susitna River watershed.

The enormity of the expense is equaled only by the dam's risks. The river now supports Alaska's fourth densest king salmon run. The river’s source is Alaska Range glaciers, which are already diminishing. The dam site is just 40 miles from the seismically active Denali fault with two villages on the floodplain downstream. The huge reservoir will bury caribou migration routes and grizzly bear habitat.

The state insists that the Susitna Dam is necessary to meet its goal of 50% renewable energy by 2025. The dam's earliest completion would be 2023. By 2019, a 100 MW geothermal development within sight of the Susitna River will be online; Alaska's geothermal potential is almost limitless. By the fall of 2012 the first two Alaska wind farms will generate 42 MW; seven more would equal the dam's megawatts for one-sixth to one-eighth the dam's cost. A 5 MW tidal energy project will be online by 2017 with at least 100 MW anticipated by 2025; Alaska holds 90% of the country's tidal power potential. Current studies show that 200-300 MW could be saved with basic energy efficiency programs. The Railbelt Electric Efficiency Landscape report (2010) states: "A 50% improvement in the Railbelt’s electricity efficiency could generate an increase of up to $947,992,100 in economic output, $290,927,800 in wages, and $53,499,850 in business income. It would also create an astounding estimated 9,350 new jobs." The Railbelt region of Alaska stretches from Fairbanks to Homer, and is home to the 75% of the state's population that the Susitna Dam would serve.

That's far more renewable energy than the dam. Natural gas now powers most of the Railbelt region. There are undeveloped natural gas reserves for a minimum of 200 more years, during which renewables technologies would be even more advanced and lower in cost.
The cost of the dam is also sure to grow. Legally mandated mitigation measures could increase the cost by as much as 25%; these costs have not been included in the project cost estimate. In addition, interest on bonds to finance the dam have not been included. The cost of expanding the transmission lines for the dam is also not included. Plus, of course, there are inevitable cost-overruns for a project of such magnitude. It has been estimated that the project’s cost could rise to $6-8 billion or more. 

The state claims the project will create jobs. Certainly, any development of this size will create jobs. But after the dam is completed, the number of jobs remaining is expected to fall by 95%. Other energy developments like tidal, wind, geothermal, and natural gas will continue to create jobs across decades as their technologies expand.

So why is the current State of Alaska pushing the Susitna Dam hard and fast? Why choke one of the remaining great wild rivers if it's not absolutely necessary?

The newly established Coalition for Susitna Dam Alternatives believes there is no justification. Nothing warrants the risks, the expense,  the simple stupidity of the Susitna Dam. But the State is determined. So is a growing opposition.