🇺🇸 Anchorage’s electric utility is having the most hotly contested election in years
Nine candidates are vying for three seats on Chugach Electric Association’s board of directors. Here are their positions on renewable power, transparency and liquefied natural gas imports.
By Northern Journal and Anchorage Daily News
ANCHORAGE — ELECTIONS for the board of Anchorage’s electric utility, Chugach Electric Association, are usually pretty sleepy affairs, drawing a handful of candidates. Typically, turnout is not much higher than 10% of the utility’s more than 90,000 members.
This year is different.
It’s the first election since the announcement that Southcentral Alaska is facing an impending supply crunch of natural gas — the primary fuel used to generate power by the region’s utilities. And that news has prompted an array of candidates to jump into the race for three Chugach board seats: Nine people are on the ballot this spring.
To help Chugach members learn more about where the candidates stand on this and other important issues facing the utility, the Anchorage Daily News and Northern Journal sent a survey to each one. All but one candidate, James Wileman, responded by our deadline. You can read their responses below.
Voting opened April 19 with emails sent to members of Chugach Electric Association, or CEA. (If you can’t find your ballot, check your spam folder: We’ve heard from a number of members whose ballots didn’t make it to their inboxes.) Email balloting closes at 3 p.m., May 19. To request a paper ballot, call (907) 646-7394 by May 8.
Jim Nordlund: Retired
Bettina Chastain: Executive/engineering consultant
Harold Hollis: Prof. engineer, business owner — retired
Susanne Fleek-Green: Superintendent, National Park Service
Steve Konkel: Consultant in energy and environment (self-employed)
Brad Authier: Semi-retired/senior environmental consultant
Shaina Kilcoyne: Energy and climate program director
Scott Von Gemmingen: Auditor
Why do you want to be on the board? What do you hope to accomplish if you are elected?
Jim Nordlund: I have long been an advocate for renewable energy, as my background will show. While Chugach is a well-managed organization with good employees, they have not been advocating strongly enough for renewable energy since I left the board in 2015. Renewables help to diversify the generation portfolio, which is inherently a good goal. Since that time, the impact of climate change has become more obvious and Chugach as a member-/citizen-owned organization should do more to reduce our carbon impact by burning less natural gas. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that less-expensive natural gas is running out in Cook Inlet. And now, new federal infrastructure acts are providing over $100 billion to electric cooperatives to improve their systems and adopt clean energy. The time to act on renewables is now, and that is why I want to be on the board.
Bettina Chastain: I am a current director of Chugach and serve as your board chair. I have provided strong and stable leadership through recent times of challenge and change. It has been a privilege to represent you, the member-owners of our cooperative, for the last eight years. I was raised in Alaska and have raised my own family in Anchorage, the community that I love. My experience as a business owner, executive, professional engineer and as a director has provided me with the deep knowledge and understanding of the complex issues and challenges that CEA faces today and the strong foundation to continue to make the important decisions that shape our future. If re-elected, I will work hard to maintain reliable service and rate stability/affordability for all members. I will focus on developing balanced solutions for diversifying our generation portfolio with cleaner energy sources, when economic, while providing energy security and protection of the cooperative’s existing investments and assets.
Harold Hollis: I am the current board treasurer, having served on the board since July 2018. I am proud of the accomplishments Chugach has made in that time, including the successful acquisition of ML&P. But there remain significant challenges facing the utility, not the least including securing a long-term gas supply and transition to clean energy. Now more than ever, the board needs stable, strong, business-minded leadership. An Alaska resident since 1982, I have over 40 years of successful business experience as a professional engineer, business owner and executive. I understand the complexity of Chugach’s challenges and bring my business and technical experience to the board in making prudent decisions in the best interest of Chugach and our members. My priority is for Chugach to continue providing safe, reliable, affordable, and sustainable energy to its members, while diversifying its generation portfolio with clean and renewable energy. Our kids and future generations depend on it.
Susanne Fleek-Green: I have been a Chugach member for over 18 years and grew up in its service area. Chugach has improved reliability, affordability and adoption of energy efficiency strategies at the utility scale and for individual members. These successes are due to a strong workforce that brings professionalism and dedication to Chugach every day. If elected, I want to work with this workforce and Chugach members to more quickly transition to clean energy sources to reduce dependence on natural gas, create new jobs and secure long-term cost savings to Chugach and its members. We are at a critical time to ensure Chugach members don’t face a steep increase in their electricity bills when natural gas contracts expire in 2028. Chugach’s success is critical to the economy of Southcentral Alaska, whether it’s helping to attract new businesses, making living here affordable for families or expanding existing industries.
Steve Konkel: CEA is facing major changes in its planning and operating environment; the world is changing because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and dependence on oil from OPEC. Closer to home and our electricity bills, supplies of limited Cook Inlet natural gas will have to be renegotiated at higher prices before 2027, whereas imported liquefied natural gas would dramatically increase fuel costs for the Railbelt, even if the project was heavily subsidized by the state of Alaska. One can never have too much expertise to apply in technical and policy decisions. Leadership and governing experience matter; I am running with protection of CEA member-owners’ wallets in mind. Decisions over the next few years will determine the sustainability of CEA. I bring expertise, and a collaborative demeanor, to the board.
Brad Authier: I semi-retired in 2016 from a fulfilling, busy professional career, continuing to work part-time since then as a consulting environmental engineer. I now have the time and renewed energy to contribute to this important organization in our community. My objective is to bring professional expertise, senior management experience, 18 years serving on a board and a diverse background in business to a governance role as a CEA board member. As an engineer/scientist with a resource extraction background, I am pragmatic and consider myself a problem solver. CEA has many challenges: retaining quality personnel, maintaining critical infrastructure, upgrading the Railbelt intertie and addressing the forecasted natural gas shortage. We must also transition to renewable energy resources. With my engineering and environmental background, prior board of director experience and success helping manage a private, growing business, I hope to help the CEA board and executive team meet these challenges.
Shaina Kilcoyne: I have been dedicated to energy efficiency and renewable energy issues in Alaska for over 10 years and believe I can offer my expertise and problem-solving skills to developing a reliable and sustainable path for ratepayers. As local gas supplies dwindle, we will see rising costs for importing gas. This near-term crisis coincides with extraordinary federal infrastructure funding for renewable energy, transmission and storage projects. We have a unique opportunity to diversify our energy economy, create good paying jobs and ensure stable and affordable energy for decades to come. If elected, I will work hard to communicate with members and make choices that provide a reliable and affordable path for ratepayers. As an Alaskan and a veteran, I believe in a secure and self-reliant energy system that is not susceptible to outside events beyond our control.
Scott Von Gemmingen: I have 30 years of experience of auditing, budgeting and financial management. Over the years, I’ve used my University of Alaska degrees in business administration/accounting and management information systems to take on increasingly complex jobs. As a lifelong Alaskan and a lead oil and gas revenue auditor for the state of Alaska, I realize that natural gas reserves in Cook Inlet are running out. I want to be on the board, as I see a key time to ensure we invest in future energy generation to keep costs down for the members. I hope to work with the existing board to ensure that the members have safe, reliable and economical electricity in the future.
What’s your favorite way to generate electricity?
Jim Nordlund: Renewable sources.
Bettina Chastain: The best way to generate reliable and affordable electricity is from Bradley Lake hydroelectric. It is clean, renewable, dispatchable and the lowest-cost power available to the Railbelt.
Harold Hollis: Safe, reliable, affordable with the least practical impact on the environment. For Chugach, hydro and the lowest-emissions gas-fired generation, allowing a smooth transition to fully clean energy.
Susanne Fleek-Green: We have excellent wind, hydro and solar options to build a secure and affordable electricity future. Community solar is a great near-term project to engage members and save limited gas supplies.
Steve Konkel: Electricity is best generated by a mix of fuel sources, based on economic dispatch and an integrated grid. Although a solid, practical goal, it has proven elusive in practice.
Brad Authier: Reliably and affordably. I’m partial to solar since we installed a 10 kilowatt solar array at our second home in Southwest Colorado in 2014. These panels feed seamlessly into the grid with zero-net metering.
Shaina Kilcoyne: Bradley Lake hydropower from Homer: This is by far our cheapest source of energy on the transmission grid. It is also our largest source of non-polluting energy.
Scott Von Gemmingen: Renewable energy is best for the environment and hydroelectric is one of the most efficient ways to generate electricity.
How much was your last electric bill?
Jim Nordlund: $237
Bettina Chastain: Between $122 and $183.
Harold Hollis: Between $103 and $154 a month.
Susanne Fleek-Green: $189.
Steve Konkel: $60.74 for 256 kilowatt hours.
Brad Authier: $235 (too many refrigerators/freezers maybe?).
Shaina Kilcoyne: $81.48.
Scott Von Gemmingen: $125 in charges, but I’m on the level pay program.
There’s a bill in the Alaska Legislature right now to require utilities to have at least 55% of their power come from renewable energy resources by 2035. Do you support this “renewable portfolio standard,” or RPS, and why or why not?
Jim Nordlund: Yes, I do. As a member of the Renewable Energy Alaska Project board, I helped to write the RPS bill currently in front of the Legislature. Renewable generation in the Railbelt is simply not happening quickly enough, especially now with depleting natural gas and dramatic improvements in renewable technology and affordability. We will certainly not meet Alaska’s current stated goal of 50% renewable power by 2025, and this bill will add more teeth to the law to meet future goals.
Bettina Chastain: Chugach needs to move towards a more diversified generation portfolio for a sustainable future. Our current generation mix is 81% natural gas, 17% hydro and 2% wind. The Chugach Board recently developed a carbon reduction goal for its strategic plan of at least 35% by 2030 and 50% by 2040. I support this aggressive but attainable goal that was developed based on a realistic timeline and the technical viability of integrating more clean energy sources, where economic, into the current grid.
Harold Hollis: I support the integration of clean and renewable energy into the Railbelt grid where it makes practical sense and does not have a significant negative impact on our members’ rates. The proposed RPS is quite aggressive and may not be technically achievable — certainly not without significant rate increases. I support the goal the Chugach board recently established for carbon reduction of at least 35% by 2030 and 50% by 2040, which will entail adding significant renewable and clean energy.
Susanne Fleek-Green: Yes. A National Renewable Energy Laboratory study completed for the governor recently shows several different scenarios where the Railbelt could achieve 80% renewable generation by 2040. An RPS will create achievable benchmarks for all utilities to move to clean energy sources, which will save Alaskans money for generations. To help meet the RPS benchmarks, Chugach should pursue new federal funding and advocate for an extension of the Alaska Renewable Energy Fund.
Steve Konkel: Yes, it will be one of my top priorities. There are hydroelectric, wind generation and solar resources available in the Railbelt region to accomplish this target. Just one example is a second phase of the Fire Island wind project. This is the right way to tackle our energy and climate and health goals. That said, the devil is in the details, as the saying goes, including the viability of the 55% by 2035 or the 80% by 2040 standards. Utility boards have long opposed specific targets. Now is the time for leadership.
Brad Authier: CEA’s renewable generation sources make up about 19% of its total power generation: about 17% hydro and 2% wind. Increasing the renewable contribution to 55% represents an approximate tripling, which would come mostly from wind and solar. If CEA annual sales in 2020 were 1,945 gigawatt hours, this represents an additional contribution of about 650-700 gigawatt hours from wind and solar — about 13 Fire Island wind projects, or building about one each year until 2035. This goal may only be achievable with unrealistic levels of investment.
Shaina Kilcoyne: I support this bill. That said, I am not opposed to allowing for nuclear energy as well, which is not technically “renewable.” This policy provides clear direction and makes it easier to work with the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to bring on alternative energy resources and reduce our dependence on dwindling Cook Inlet gas. Many states already have this policy to help guide decision-making. A strong energy standard will allow and encourage a diverse energy mix to improve our long-term energy security.
Scott Von Gemmingen: Reaching 55% by 2035 may be a little too aggressive of a goal to reach. Increasing renewable energy resources, though, is important for long-term sustainability. Canada is at 68%, but the U.S. is at just over 20%. I support an increase of renewable energy, but goals should be reasonable.
Alaska has abundant natural gas in Cook Inlet and the North Slope that could be used to generate electricity on the Railbelt, but the cost of producing and transporting that gas has been too high to secure reliable supplies past the end of the current decade. As a board member, how much of a priority would you place on securing new gas supplies from within Alaska, and why?
Jim Nordlund: Gas depletion in Cook Inlet is the biggest challenge for Chugach. The dominant producer has stated that less expensive gas will soon be depleted and they cannot guarantee the renewal of gas contracts. They are unlikely to develop less accessible gas because of expense, risk and a limited market. The North Slope has plenty of gas, but none of the pipeline projects have proven feasible. The specter of importing liquefied natural gas seems like the only viable option. Developing renewables is now even more compelling
Bettina Chastain: As a board member, it is the top priority for Chugach and the other Railbelt utilities to secure a long-term natural gas supply solution to provide energy security for the future and as a bridge in the transition to integrating more renewable energy sources. As an Alaskan, it only makes sense to identify and support all of the available in-state gas options that could meet Chugach’s 2028 gas supply contract end date with Hilcorp for predicted gas supply shortages from the Cook Inlet Basin.
Harold Hollis: Securing a reliable gas supply is critical to ensuring reliability and to allow for transition to clean and renewable energy. Chugach has in progress a study of options including additional drilling in Cook Inlet, North Slope natural gas, imported liquefied natural gas and other fuel substitutes. It has retained Black & Veatch, an internationally known expert on natural gas, as its consultant to explore all available options. The results of the study will help to provide a direction for decision making by the board.
Susanne Fleek-Green: To ensure Chugach members don’t face steep power bill increases, the priority should be to secure new clean energy sources, expand energy conservation and work with Railbelt utilities on affordable in-state gas options that do not lock Chugach into long-term and more costly gas contracts. Chugach should also rapidly adopt measures at the Beluga River Gas Field to extend and efficiently use its reservoirs.
Steve Konkel: High priority. Hilcorp has stated that natural gas supplies, at reasonable cost to both Enstar and the Railbelt, are limited. North Slope gas is unlikely to be the solution without contracts that can deliver it through an 800-mile pipeline to overseas markets. It’s correct that “the cost of producing and transporting gas has been too high to secure reliable supplies.” This drives generation system cost that is about 80% dependent on the use of natural gas for electricity generation.
Brad Authier: It is clearly prudent to prioritize securing new gas supplies: We need natural gas to bridge our transition to renewable energy sources. A recent Department of Natural Resources study concludes that Cook Inlet supply may not meet demand by about 2028, and with help from consultant Black & Veatch, CEA and its board are exploring options for securing its long-term supply — including additional drilling in Cook Inlet, importing liquefied natural, gas contract negotiations or importing gas from other basins such as the North Slope.
Shaina Kilcoyne: Unfortunately, the affordable, accessible gas in Cook Inlet is depleted. For the last couple of decades, Alaska has not been able to bring the North Slope natural gas pipeline to fruition. Our small market in Southcentral Alaska is not enough demand to justify the estimated $40 billion project. Now, more than ever, focusing on local generation projects that we can control, such as hydro, wind and solar with battery storage is the responsible path to energy security.
Scott Von Gemmingen: If it was commercially feasible, the oil companies would have created infrastructure to market gas from the North Slope. Cook Inlet gas supplies are running out. Gas supplies 75% of Chugach power generation. Gas supplies within Alaska are not feasible for the long run at this time.
Do you think it’s possible for Chugach to avoid needing to import liquefied natural gas? How much effort should the cooperative invest in efforts to avoid that scenario?
Jim Nordlund: I don’t really know the answer to the first question, but we must keep the lights on. I would hope that the adoption of more renewables, if not eliminating the need for liquefied natural gas, would at least limit it and the associated high cost to ratepayers. We heat our homes in Anchorage with natural gas and the substitution options would be extremely expensive and very invasive. It would be best to minimize our gas usage for the generation of electricity and save it for heating our homes. I think that Chugach should make a full court press to avoid the importation of liquefied natural gas.
Bettina Chastain: Upon the announcement from Hilcorp in April of 2022 and confirmation from the recent Department of Natural Resources study that Cook Inlet gas supply shortages are inevitable in the 2028 timeframe, the Chugach board embarked on a study to identify long-term gas supply solutions that will provide energy security for the future of the cooperative. Currently, 80% of our power is produced from natural gas (thermal generation) from Cook Inlet. From a realistic and practical understanding of what options are available to Chugach and the other Railbelt utilities that could be implemented within the next four to five years to resolve the gas shortage issue, it is highly likely that some form of liquefied natural gas imports will need to be considered in order to maintain reliable service. In-state pipeline options to provide North Slope gas to Southcentral are being considered, but if one of these projects is not sanctioned soon (within a year), either temporary or more permanent liquefied natural gas imports should be prioritized as the only viable option.
Harold Hollis: I certainly hope so. With all the gas resources Alaska has, it will be a shame to have to import liquefied natural gas. Currently, Chugach generates 83% of its power production from natural gas. To maintain reliability, it is imperative that it secure a stable gas supply to bridge the transition to clean and renewable energy. As mentioned above, investing in the Black & Veatch study will provide options and costs for consideration. It is important to gain enough valid information to make sound business decisions regarding gas supply. Absent major new Cook Inlet discoveries, all other options will have significant capital costs and long lead times associated, and importing liquefied natural gas may not be avoided in the short term. It is also important for Chugach to proceed as quickly as practical with renewable and clean energy to reduce the amount of gas generation as much as possible. I certainly support doing so while keeping our members’ rates affordable.
Susanne Fleek-Green: Yes, if CEA makes critical policy changes and investments now. Imported gas will mean significant, if not prohibitive, infrastructure costs that will be passed on to Chugach members through higher power bills. In my mind, this is unacceptable. It will have significant impacts on the Southcentral economy, our ability to attract new and grow existing businesses and industries and Southcentral families could find our region unaffordable. I grew up here and I am raising my family here. I hope my children decide to raise their families here. We need to make decisions today to ensure an affordable and sustainable future for our economy and communities. Chugach’s consultants outlined several scenarios showing the benefits of accelerating the transition to clean energy sources to avoid imported natural gas. Accelerating clean energy generation also helps save the natural gas at the Beluga River Gas Field. This is a strategic decision for Chugach, as gas from that field increases in value as well.
Steve Konkel: Yes. Lots of effort. Southcentral is not going to change world liquefied natural gas contracts, nor is it going to drive decisions by OPEC on the cost per barrel of oil. We need to create our future, and there are cost-effective alternatives to accomplish this.
Brad Authier: Hopefully, but it may be difficult to avoid that scenario if recent Cook Inlet supply and demand projections hold true. We may hold hope that new Cook Inlet discoveries, improvements in gas recovery, negotiations with suppliers or gas from other Alaska basins may avoid liquefied natural gas imports. However, as we ramp up renewable generation over the next 10 to 15 years, liquefied natural gas imports may be necessary to bridge the gap. The feasibility of a wind project near Mt. Susitna is currently being evaluated, and as a board, we will need to press on other projects (utility-scale solar), so that liquefied natural gas imports may be avoided or minimized. The CEA board can press only so hard to initiate and negotiate wind and solar farm projects, and upgrades to the power transmission system, so in the next couple of years, CEA, in concert with other major Railbelt utilities, must realistically evaluate the need for — and possibly initiate studies and negotiations for — importing liquefied natural gas, as early as about 2029 based on currently projected shortfalls.
Shaina Kilcoyne: I think it’s likely that we’ll need to import gas within the next 10 years. However, a recent presentation to the board of directors showed that greater integration of renewable energy can potentially stave off the need to import gas for years. This requires clear direction and coordinated effort among utilities. This can also help save local gas for heating needs, which is more difficult to replace. I am ready to contribute to a thoughtful path to keep the lights on and keep rates down.
Scott Von Gemmingen: Unless Chugach diversifies their power generation, importing liquefied natural gas might be necessary. Relying on local resources would be great, but unless capital investment is made in renewable resource energy generation, it is less likely. Working with the other Railbelt utilities to invest in renewable energy power generation would be beneficial to all.
What’s the biggest obstacle to integrating more inexpensive, renewable power into Chugach’s generation mix, and what would you do to make that easier?
Jim Nordlund: The most immediate impact Chugach can make in adopting more renewable power is adding more solar and wind. An obstacle is that these sources are intermittent, and storage is necessary to make better use of them. Battery storage has made huge progress in recent years. Another obstacle is the weakness of the Railbelt grid, which limits renewable generators to access and distribute power widely. An obstacle to solar is the lack of incentive in the rate structure for commercial buildings to use it. I would promote the development of storage, continue to support grid unification, take advantage of new federal funding and propose changes to the rate structure.
Bettina Chastain: Integration of utility-scale, variable, renewable generation sources (wind and solar) is limited by physical constraints and the ability to regulate these types of non-dispatchable sources in the current system. The intermittent nature of these sources requires backup to ensure reliability and/or long-term storage options such as large batteries that are both expensive and not technically viable at this time. Additionally, there are transmission constraints that currently prevent the flow of renewable power across the grid Railbelt-wide. As a board member, I support the work on the two large, utility scale projects (one wind and one solar) that are being pursued for implementation into the Chugach system through the renewable generation request for proposals process that is currently underway. I also support the work that the Railbelt utilities are doing to identify and obtain funding opportunities for Railbelt-wide transmission upgrades through the federal infrastructure programs.
Harold Hollis: One of the biggest challenges for implementing large-scale renewable energy is upgrading the Railbelt transmission system so that it can accept and efficiently move electricity where needed. Currently, the system is constrained such that utility-scale wind and solar generation, likely to be in remote locations, cannot be fully utilized. Chugach is systematically upgrading its owned transmission lines and working with the other utilities to obtain federal and state funding for further Railbelt transmission upgrades. Additionally, as structured now, the Regulatory Commission of Alaska requires any new generation to be equal or less than the avoided cost of the utility’s current generation, to not increase member rates. Legislation may be necessary to change this requirement. I support Chugach’s efforts to seek funding for infrastructure upgrades and implementing renewable energy without negatively impacting member rates.
Susanne Fleek-Green: There are several challenges, but all can be overcome with commitment and coordination across the Railbelt. First, we need Railbelt utilities to integrate power across the grid. This would allow utilities to dispatch — or use — the cheapest and most reliable renewable power at any given time. Second, we need a state renewable portfolio standard that sets a high benchmark for utilities to meet, and for the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to recognize. Third, Chugach needs funding to invest in renewable sources, but also in the upgrades needed to integrate them, such as battery storage and transmission line upgrades. Fourth, we need to help Southcentral businesses and families invest in onsite renewable generation on their buildings and homes. Luckily, Chugach has a great opportunity to secure funding through new federal programs. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year, offers historic funding to support the adoption of renewable energy by utilities, businesses and homes.
Steve Konkel: Upgrade of the transmission system, including battery energy storage systems, to use all power produced. To make that easier, I would like the utilities, including CEA, to negotiate lower connection charges for the independent power producers, consider capacity credits for renewable power and avoid “pancaking” transmission charges.
Brad Authier: We face two major hurdles: Utility-scale solar and wind projects are capital intensive, as are power transmission upgrades to accommodate such projects. Projects need to be sited appropriately, such as near the transmission system, and feasibility studies must be performed. CEA would likely partner with private entities, such as independent power producers or Native corporations, who would develop, permit and construct the projects, selling the power to CEA and other Railbelt utilities. Expensive upgrades — estimated in the billions of dollars — are required for the transmission and distribution system (intertie) to accommodate and balance utility-scale wind and solar. CEA is currently upgrading its own transmission lines and coordinating with other Railbelt utilities to arrange funding for shared/common Railbelt transmission lines. As a board member, I would work to facilitate such partnerships with the private entities and collaborate with the other Railbelt utilities to scope projects and obtain funding.
Shaina Kilcoyne: While there are technical challenges to integrating variable, renewable power, I believe we are working to overcome them with upgrades to power lines and energy storage. We’ve been fortunate to have local gas supplies for over 60 years, but that gas is running out. Our system has been built on gas for more than a generation, and our utilities have experience and comfort in that system. Integrating renewables requires learning new systems and working with the state regulating body in a different way. This shift will require new practices and uncertainties. But we have seen other Alaskan communities, such as Kodiak and Cordova, overcome those challenges and embrace a more sustainable and affordable future. The time is right to address these challenges. We cannot afford to put them off any longer.
Scott Von Gemmingen: While in the long run renewable power is inexpensive, the upfront investment and the return on investment can be long. Now that interest rates are on the rise, looking at low interest rate loans could help keep overall costs down.
What steps do you think Railbelt utilities should take, if any, to better coordinate with each other to improve reliability and lower costs for their customers?
Jim Nordlund: The recent and ongoing development of the Railbelt Reliability Council is a significant step toward improving coordination between the Railbelt utilities. It is very important that this organization is successful and has significant consumer/ratepayer participation. True economic dispatch across the Railbelt will help consumers save money. This means that the least costly sources of generation are used across the Railbelt, regardless of where the generation comes from or which entity owns it.
Bettina Chastain: The utilities have been working together and coordinating efforts to address some of the most critical issues and concerns that affect the ratepayers in terms of reliability and sustainability of the Railbelt for the future. The Railbelt utilities have formed a working group that is developing a strategy to address long-term gas supply solutions to reduce our dependence on Cook Inlet gas, while providing energy security during the transition to a more diversified and cleaner generation portfolio. Natural gas will necessarily continue to be an important piece of the generation portfolio into the future and the utilities will need to work together, and with the state, to determine the best path forward to provide that long-term energy security. As we undergo the energy transition to cleaner/renewable generation sources, there will be an increased need to work with the other utilities along the Railbelt in order to ensure transmission resilience and reliability across the state.
Harold Hollis: Safety and reliability are of the highest priorities and Chugach has an exceptionally high rating for reliability of service, according to recent member surveys. In my time on the board, I have witnessed significant advancement of the utilities working together toward common goals. Developing and putting in place the Railbelt Reliability Council is just one example. Chugach and Matanuska Electric Association implementing the power pool, in conjunction with the acquisition of ML&P, is another that has brought significant savings to their members. Efforts to collaborate on a Railbelt-wide transmission build-out plan to accommodate renewable energy, and to jointly pursue funding opportunities through both the state and federal infrastructure legislation for grid modernization and battery storage, are well in progress. And there are many more examples. As a director, I am fully supportive of these efforts that will maintain and in some cases improve reliability, and keep rates affordable.
Susanne Fleek-Green: While I am pleased the new Railbelt Reliability Council was created, I would like to see Railbelt utilities go further to improve reliability and affordability for utility members by coordinating dispatching across the grid. We have five operators on a small grid right now. This is inefficient and a barrier to adopting more affordable and sustainable power for the future. Coordination within the Railbelt should also focus on a regional transmission plan, investment priorities and interconnection standards for the grid to facilitate integration of electricity from independent power producers. The utilities can also coordinate right now to take advantage of federal funding opportunities to move all of the electricity sector forward in adopting affordable, clean energy sources.
Steve Konkel: The Regulatory Commission of Alaska has approved an ERO, or electric reliability organization, for the Railbelt utilities, located along the road system from Homer to Fairbanks. The utilities, led by CEA, should appoint staff that can deliver increased reliability and lower costs. The Railbelt Reliability Council is expected to collect over $250,000 a month from utility customers to eventually deliver an integrated grid and economic dispatch. Time is of the essence.
Brad Authier: I understand that reasonably cooperative working relationships currently exist between the Railbelt utilities. Reliability has not been an issue to date. However, as each of the utilities press to increase contribution of renewables like wind and solar, upgrades to the transmission system and intertie, and energy storage, are critical for maintaining reliability and balancing power across the grid. Given transmission and distribution system upgrade costs possibly in the $2 billion to $3 billion range, it will be challenging to lower costs. The board and executive team for CEA, in collaboration with boards from the other Railbelt utilities, must work together to identify the upgrades needed and strategize for funding them, striving to keep costs flat or to minimize any rate increases. Prior to initiating expensive upgrades, CEA members must be apprised of the cost and benefit analysis, and members should be advised of any proposed rate increases that might be submitted to the RCA.
Shaina Kilcoyne: Greater collaboration through the newly developed Railbelt Reliability Council is good for homes, businesses, our military bases and our broader state economy. I support this effort and believe we will be much stronger and more resilient through shared planning and operation. It means we can choose the best generation sources on the entire system at any given moment and avoid using the most expensive and most polluting sources. A larger, coordinated system creates more options for energy generation and greater economies of scale. While much of the work will be completed by staff, the board should provide leadership and direction to encourage transparent and positive collaboration.
Scott Von Gemmingen: Working together with other Railbelt utilities is important to spread the costs across multiple entities. The Susitna Hydroelectric project was looked at in the 1980s, and now would be a good time to look at it or other potential renewable energy projects again. Hydroelectric power in Alaska is an excellent renewable energy source.
What are the top infrastructure improvements needed for the Railbelt grid to increase reliability, improve coordination and lower costs for consumers, and how should those improvements be paid for?
Jim Nordlund: A more robust grid, from Homer to Fairbanks, would be a worthy, albeit expensive, infrastructure improvement. This would allow the least expensive generated power to be readily available anywhere on the grid. It would improve reliability (more generators available), and lower cost (less spinning reserve and cheapest power available), but more coordination and economic dispatch would be required by all the utilities. A great new source of funding is available through the recently passed federal infrastructure acts. These laws present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Railbelt utilities to receive federal grants to improve various systems. Over $100 billion is being made available to electric cooperatives across the country to do such things as improve cybersecurity, bolster grid resiliency and develop clean energy.
Bettina Chastain: We will require a more robust and resilient transmission system in the Railbelt to ensure system reliability as we transition to the integration of new, large-scale clean energy projects throughout the state. Current estimates indicate that the required transmission system upgrades that will allow for balancing of power from these new renewable generation sources across the grid will cost upwards of $2 billion to $3 billion. The Railbelt utilities have been working together to identify and obtain the funding sources that are available within the new federal infrastructure legislation to help pay for these required transmission infrastructure projects.
Harold Hollis: Goals were set out by the governor to increase the Railbelt transfer capacity from Bradley Lake to Delta Junction via Healy at 300% of its current rating, and to construct new transmission through Glennallen to Delta Junction to pave the way for new clean energy projects. The Railbelt transmission grid consists primarily of 115 kilovolt capacity with little to no redundancy. Some sections have been upgraded to 230 kilovolt, but large sections remain. This limits the capacity to carry and balance power from the generation source to the need. The Railbelt utilities have jointly developed a buildout concept to allow for the development and delivery of low-cost renewable and low-carbon generation through an unconstrained transmission system. This is unprecedented alignment among the Railbelt utilities and is essential for a clean and fuel-diverse future. I support this plan, and priority will be placed on highest areas of need. Initial funding is being pursued through federal and state sources.
Susanne Fleek-Green: Core to Chugach’s success is improving the transmission backbone from Homer to Fairbanks to increase capacity, reliability and affordability. The line coming up from the Kenai Peninsula should be a near-term priority. We need to also invest in battery storage systems to both protect reliability but also to store electricity generated from renewable sources. The workforce at Railbelt utilities are also part of the critical infrastructure. Transition to affordable clean energy sources and reliable transmission and distribution depends on a strong, skilled workforce. These infrastructure projects and the transition to clean energy they support will create thousands of new jobs across the Railbelt.
Steve Konkel: The 165,000 acre Swan Lake fire unmasked vulnerabilities of the transmission grid to deliver power from Bradley Lake near Homer to Southcentral Alaska and other Railbelt utility consumers. Depending on the math for extra natural gas fuel charges, customers paid an extra $10 million to $12 million because of the lack of ability to move that electricity. Customers have already paid for bonds that have now been retired to make the investment. Consumers will be asked to pay again for the needed upgrades, so the CEA board should foster the needed improvements and carefully monitor these charges.
Brad Authier: Reliability has been excellent, so there’s not much room for improvement with the current power generation mix (mostly natural gas and hydro). As we increase our renewable portfolio, I expect these infrastructure improvements to include primarily power transmission and distribution system upgrades to mitigate system constraints. Upgrades can include construction of additional electrical substations, major transmission lines, utility-scale batteries and other improvements. As we sensibly scale up our mix of renewable generation, such upgrades will become required to support sharing of power across the Railbelt; utilities have worked together to develop a buildout concept. I understand that CEA, in concert with the other Railbelt utilities, has been pursuing funding through federal infrastructure legislation to help pay for these critical transmission system upgrades. I strongly support these upgrades, and securing funding sources to make them happen.
Shaina Kilcoyne: Our existing transmission infrastructure that serves three-fourths of the state’s population is aging and inadequate to the task in front of us. I support the Railbelt utilities’ recent efforts to leverage historic federal support to upgrade the existing system in order to improve resiliency and reliability, improve storage and integrate more diverse energy sources. Improved resiliency is necessary as we adapt to more wildfires and extreme weather due to climate change. The Railbelt utilities and state will need to provide a match for these federal funding opportunities. As part of this effort, I would like to see a transparent, regional Railbelt plan that prioritizes the necessary investments to optimize federal funding. This will allow us to grow our economy by focusing on the most competitive generation and energy storage projects for long-term planning.
Scott Von Gemmingen: Short- and long-term challenges include strategic planning to invest in future renewable power as well as rebuilding transmission lines south of Anchorage.
Is Chugach doing enough right now to make its business open and accessible to the public? If not, what would you change?
Jim Nordlund: Chugach is a democratic organization with a board elected to represent the members/owners/ratepayers who have a right to understand the issues facing the board. Chugach business should be conducted in public, and too much recent business has been conducted in private. As a board member I would vote no on a motion to enter executive session without a strict rationale, and I would remind fellow board members about the obligation to our constituents and adherence to Alaska’s open meetings law.
Bettina Chastain: There has been some recent unfounded commentary on transparency issues being made by the public and special interest groups. Our meetings are open to the public with lots of active member participation. Agendas are set and meetings are conducted according to the governing Alaska statutes. All topics are discussed in open public session and only those matters that may have an adverse effect on the cooperative’s legal or financial position, or that relate to personnel, are included in executive session.
Harold Hollis: Chugach has received criticism of late regarding this issue, and I can attest the board has taken this seriously and implemented measures in response. The last several board meetings have been scheduled with significantly more discussion in general session and limited executive sessions to very specific topics or portions of topics that involve confidential or sensitive issues, in accordance with state open meeting guidelines. I have and will continue to support these efforts.
Susanne Fleek-Green: Chugach should lead on engagement and transparency. If elected, I will strive to minimize executive sessions and work with the Member Advisory Committee to reach out to a diverse spectrum of member-owners and listen to their ideas for Chugach’s future. To increase engagement, we need to make it easier to watch and participate in meetings and increase outreach to the public on upcoming topics. The board should also add a position for a youth member.
Steve Konkel: Board meetings, when not in executive session, are open to the public and there is time set aside to hear from the member-owners. I would foster initiatives in communications that clearly add value to the conduct of CEA business. Member Appreciation Day is a good way to inform the owner-members as well as to garner input on CEA developments and staff accomplishments, from planning to analysis to customer service improvements.
Brad Authier: I have heard concerns from some that the board spends too much time in executive session, where the public is not privy to the discussions. A number of issues warrant that, from personnel matters to proprietary or confidential discussions. In the interest of transparency with members and the public, I would work to minimize time in executive session and enhance transparency.
Shaina Kilcoyne: I feel that executive sessions are overused. The state law is specific about matters which necessitate the use of executive session. I believe that we are better off when our members can access information, ask hard questions and offer their input. As a board member, I would work to open discussions and decisions to the extent legally possible. A cooperative’s members should have a say in their energy future, and that requires having access to information.
Scott Von Gemmingen: I believe that Chugach is doing enough right now to make its business open and accessible to the public and would not change anything at this moment.
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