Alaska, rich in power potential, still has a job plugging in

New Yorkers who complain about their electricity bills, the highest in any American city, do not appreciate their relatively good fortune. Villagers in 48 western Alaska communities pay $241.35 for 500 kilowatt-hours, or 31/2 times as much as Consolidated Edison Company charges New York residential customers, and about six times the national average in the United States.

Ironically, the Alaskan villagers are surrounded by electric-power potential. Name the energy source, except nuclear, and Alaska has it.

The state ranks first in oil production and second in natural gas potential, and it contains about half the nation's coal reserves. It abounds with peat as well as biomass material such as wood.

Geothermal steam gushes from Unalaska Island in the Aleutian chain. Tides of more than 30 feet surge up the inlet where British Capt. James Cook sailed in 1778 in search of a passage to the Arctic Sea. Solar power strong enough to grow 50-pound cabbages pours into the fertile Matanuska Valley northeast of Anchorage , and winds of more than 20 miles an hour sweep almost constantly along hundreds of miles of the western coast.

It is impractical to transmit electric power in most parts of the state because of long distance and small markets. You would have to vacate an area of Alaska as large as New England, New York State, and West Virginia combined, huddling all Alaskans in what's left, to push the state's population up to one person per square mile.

Thus, electricity is provided by individuals or tiny private companies, using small diesel engines, or more commonly by municipal governments and rural electric cooperatives. Many of them rely heavily on diesels, except in the relatively populous ''Railbelt'' along the federally owned Alaska Railroad, which runs from Fairbanks down through Anchorage and on to Seward.

Natural gas, coal, and some hydropower provide electricity in this area at rates below the national average.

Hydro-electricity provides 10 percent of Alaska utility generation, a relatively small amount in a state with nearly half the nation's undeveloped water power. But its share of generation is increasing as new, small hydro projects are completed.

Last year the city of Sitka, in southeastern Alaska, completed the $65 million, 16.5-megawatt Green Lake project. Also last year the Copper Valley Electric Association, a rural electric cooperative serving the Valdez and Glennallen communities east of Anchorage, completed the $55 million, 12-megawatt Solomon Gulch project.

Three comparable but slightly larger hydro projects, similarly serving one or two communities, are in their final year of construction.

This hydro development is part of an ambitious effort to free Alaskans from dependence on expensive diesel fuel. The development program centers in the Alaska Power Authority, a state agency established by the Legislature in 1976.

Why, one might ask, would the State of Alaska and local ratepayers spend $189 million on a 20-megawatt hydro project on an island with about 3,300 electric customers and a US Coast Guard station? Dave Neese, manager of the Kodiak Electric Association, a rural electric cooperative on Kodiak Island southwest of Anchorage, gets the answer to that question every month - a diesel fuel bill of about $500,000. That figures out to more than 90 cents a gallon.

The development his co-op backs is the Terror Lake project, about 20 miles west of the town of Kodiak. The project involves increasing the lake level and tunneling from its far end - five miles through a granite mountain - to the ridge above the powerhouse, scheduled to begin operation in November 1984.

Work began in June of 1982 after a land swap was worked out by state the federal agencies and environmental organizations on behalf of the Kodiak brown bear, for which the Kodiak Wildlife Refuge was created in 1941.

Part of the project previously lay within the refuge. Now the bears have 27, 000 acres of adjacent state land, which is run by the state under refuge rules. Bears and construction workers watch one another, usually from respectful distances, and no bad bear incidents have been reported as construction entered its final year.

While the Terror Lake project modifies a natural impoundment, raising its level above the tunnel, the $125 million Tyee Lake project in southeastern Alaska will simply tap, by tunnel, a lake that nature perched in a hanging valley above a fjord.

This 20-megawatt project, to be completed in January, will provide electricity for Wrangell and Petersburg.

The 22.7-megawatt Swan Lake project, about 40 miles south of Tyee Lake, will enable Ketchikan to shut down its expensive diesels most of the time. The Swan Lake project, costing $96 million, is scheduled for operation by Christmas.

Transmission of electricity is practical between the state's two largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks, because of the relatively large loads in their service areas. Work began this summer on a transmission line connecting them and should be completed by the end of next year.

They, as well as Wrangell, Petersburg, Ketchikan, and Sitka, are all served by city-owned electric systems. The only investor-owned utility of any size in the state is Alaska Electric Light & Power, which provides electricity for Juneau, the state capital, with hydropower it obtains from a federal power project, Snettisham, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1975.

In contrast to the dominant position, in the lower 48 states, of large private power companies which are centered in metropolitan areas, private utilities in Alaska are predominantly tiny firms in the hinterland.

A large hydro project is under intensive study on the Susitna River, which rises in the Alaska Range south of Fairbanks, meanders south, then plunges west through canyons toward the Railbelt and finally south into Cook Inlet near Anchorage.

The Susitna project does not present the huge environmental and relocation problems that led to shelving years ago of the proposed Ramparts Dam on the Yukon River. But the Alaska Power Authority does not expect action until 1986 on its application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a Susitna project license.

Meanwhile, the authority is looking at other small projects and expanding its program of capturing waste heat from diesel generators in isolated villages. Using standardized pipes, pumps, and engine jackets, the authority plans to capture half the waste heat and move it to nearby buildings.

The heat-recapture units should be operating in at least 13 villages this winter and pay for themselves in three years.

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