The Borough Assemblies of Wrangell and Petersburg held a joint work session in Wrangell on Tuesday.
The purpose was to discuss the Southeast Alaska Power Agency and the Thomas Bay Power Authority.
One point of contention was whether or not the two communities should continue funding TBPA.
The Thomas Bay Power Authority, or TBPA, formed in 1974 to explore hydro power potential in central Southeast.
Currently, TBPA is contracted by the Southeast Alaska Power Agency, or SEAPA, to operate and maintain the Tyee hydroelectric power plant. That’s known as an O&M contract.
SEAPA CEO Trey Acteson says he understands that TBPA is important to Wrangell and Petersburg, but it’s not doing the job it was intended to do.
“It’s listed in the charters of both your communities. But recognize that the original mission was to further hydro development, not to be an O&M contractor. And SEAPA’s performing those functions now, and not just locally, but on a regional basis. Clearly, the role of TBPA is just narrowed down to being just an O&M contractor,” says Acteson.
Acteson says his agency is exploring hydro potential in other communities around Southeast, including Kake and Metlakatla.
In the early 1980s the State of Alaska realized it needed to find alternatives to the increasingly costly diesel generation as a main source of power.
The state built hydroelectric projects at four locations including Swan Lake near Ketchikan and Tyee Lake, near Wrangell and Petersburg. Jointly, they were called the Four Dam Pool Projects.
The Four Dam Pool purchased the hydro facilities from the state in 2002 and split up seven years later.
Kodiak and Copper Valley Electric went independent. The remaining Panhandle communities became SEAPA.
But even though SEAPA owns the Tyee facility, the two communities it powers are responsible for paying a portion of TBPA’s administrative costs to run the place.
Back in May, Petersburg’s borough assembly decided it would no longer pay its portion of TBPA’s admin costs.
Assembly member John Hoag says SEAPA should either foot the bill or eliminate the middle man.
“SEAPA is responsible for running Tyee. If they’re satisfied with Thomas Bay and think it’s being run efficiently, then SEAPA should be paying all the costs. Or, if SEAPA says no, these are costs like the board members meeting and the insurance that are duplicate, that comes back to the issue of, shouldn’t we save the rate payers some money and put Thomas Bay on ice at least?” says Hoag.
CEO Trey Acteson says the two agencies are redundant. They even share board members.
“I mean they’re already sitting on our board. To me it looks just like an extra layer of government. In this day and age, I would think most people would be in favor of trying to streamline government a little bit, especially if all the same people are on multiple boards. It’s just not good business practice,” says Acteson.
But, many on the Wrangell side say it’s not that easy. Interim Borough Manager Jeff Jabusch says both communities are still responsible for TBPA.
He says just because Petersburg stopped paying, doesn’t mean the costs have disappeared.
“If Wrangell had not funded it and just said we’re done, you would have had some turmoil there. You would have had bills that weren’t getting paid. You would have had payroll issues. You would have had all kinds of chaos with that project until a decision had been made to do one thing or the other. So that was the issue was just try to get the communities together to come up with a solution,” says Jabusch.
Petersburg assembly member Hoag says SEAPA should step up.
“See, then we ought to negotiate very quickly with SEAPA to let them take over and absorb your costs, or our costs, should we say,” says Hoag.
Brian Ashton is Wrangell’s voting representative on the SEAPA board.
He says if Wrangell needs SEAPA to take over the payments, the assembly should make a formal request that he can then bring to the board.
But, he says, Wrangell should think carefully before giving up all stakes in Tyee.
“If I was on the council, the question I would be asking myself and talking to community members about is, do we want to remove the thumb on that natural resource and lose the contract for managing that natural resource that’s in our borough boundaries?” says Ashton.
The lake falls within the Borough of Wrangell. So, Ashton says, Petersburg doesn’t have as much to lose by pulling out of TBPA.
That brings the discussion back to Assembly member John Hoag’s suggestion to “put it on ice.”
“Just let it sit idle for a while. Maybe you want to resurrect it at some other point. Maybe you want to develop a hydro project locally. It doesn’t matter to me how you guys approach the future of Thomas Bay Power Authority,” says Acteson.
The assemblies didn’t take any formal action and didn’t even reach a real consensus.
But, both have agreed to discuss the fate of TBPA further in their own meetings and hope to return to the round table again in the near future.