Powerful winds of change — Weighty decisions await candidates for HEA Board of Directors

By Jenny Neyman

Photo by Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter. The HEA Soldotna substation is the site for the proposed Independent Light proposal before the HEA Board of Directors.

Redoubt Reporter

Five candidates are running for seats on the Homer Electric Association Board of Directors.

Ballots will be sent to HEA members Friday. If returned by mail, ballots must be received by May 4. Or members may vote at the HEA annual meeting May 5 at Kenai Central High School.

Following are question-and-answer interviews with the candidates. All were asked the same eight questions.

1. Why did you decide to run?

2. What strengths and experiences do you feel you can bring to this position?

3. What should HEA’s relationship with Chugach Electric Association be after the current contract to purchase power expires?

4. What is your opinion of the Independent Light proposal?

5. What are your thoughts on natural gas, coal, wind, hydro, solar, tidal and other renewables as potential energy generation sources for HEA in the future?

6. Can you share your thoughts on electricity rates? For instance, how big of a priority is it for you to lower rates, and how do you think that should be done? Or do you think higher rates are an unavoidable cost of the future?

7. What’s your vision for the future of HEA?

8. Is there anything else you’d like members to know?

Information guide:

GRETC — The Legislature is considering a proposal to create a state-sponsored Greater Railbelt Energy and Transmission Corporation, which would unite the Railbelt electric utilities, including Homer Electric Association, in transmission and generation assets, making them able to pursue large-scale generation projects jointly.

Independent Light — The HEA Board of Directors is considering a proposal to generate more of its own electricity. The Nikiski phase of the proposal would add a turbine at the existing Nikiski power generation facility to capture steam once used by the Agrium plant, without using any additional natural gas. The Soldotna phase would install two natural gas-fired turbines at the Soldotna substation, which already has a building to house the turbines and much of the needed infrastructure. Independent Light is expected to generate 110 megawatts of power.

Kenai Winds —The Legislature is considering a request to fund a project that could bring about 14 megawatts of wind-generated electricity in Nikiski into the HEA grid. A $7 million request would fund development of batteries that could store the energy and transfer it to the grid when enough is built up.

Susitna and Chakachamna — Two large-scale hydroelectric projects are being discussed in the state, one proposed for the Susitna River and one at the outlet of Chakachamna Lake across Cook Inlet.

District 1 — Kenai, Nikiski, Soldotna

Tony Garcia, Nikiski

1. Garcia is an HEA board incumbent, appointed about 18 months ago, is a member of the Greater Railbelt Energy and Transmission Corporation Task Force and wanted to continue that work.

2. Garcia retired from the Air Force after 21 years, has been a member of the Soldotna Police Department for over six years and has experience as a member of several boards, including the Kenai Care Center, the Alaska DARE Officers Association and the Elks’ Drug Awareness Committee. “I think one of my greatest strengths is that I’m able to work within a board for a common goal.”

3. “We are teammates. We’re going to have to be because right now HEA is pursuing Independent Light. That means that our goal is to generate our needs on the peninsula. However, we’re still connected to every other utility on the Railbelt and will continue to be so. Therefore we’re going to have to have a positive working relationship.”

4. Garcia is supportive of the Nikiski proposal of the project. “We can generate more electricity without increasing any carbon footprint. That’s our most (readily available), renewable, reliable resource we have right now. We can generate electricity without burning another BTU of natural gas.” He also would like to pursue the Kenai Winds project and contract out for any remaining power needs until tidal or geothermal power can be utilized, rather than installing gas-fired turbines in Soldotna. “My concern is if we pursue the Soldotna project we will have all of our needs met for the next 30 years. Translation — future boards will be unable or even possibly unwilling to integrate renewable resources. If we have all of our needs met and we’re paying for that, are we going to be able to afford renewable projects?”

5. “Natural gas is a must, there are no options. Currently 90 percent of our power generation is from natural gas. That’s not going change in the near-term future. It’s still a vital part of our energy mix.”

“I do not see coal being a part of our energy mix whatsoever.”

“I think wind will become an increasing part of our energy mix as we’re able to develop the technology to integrate it.” Garcia said he would like to see HEA possibly develop a battery storage system for wind power, similar to what exists in Fairbanks, which transfers wind-generated power into the grid once a certain amount is stored up in the batteries. That may help alleviate the challenges with frequency integration HEA is currently facing, he said, although that technology is costly.

“Currently, low-impact hydro units, I don’t know that there’s much of a future on the peninsula. However, large-scale scale hydro units, such as Susitna or Chakachamna, are a must, but are only feasible as a joint effort amongst all Railbelt utilities with the state being a partner.”

Garcia said solar energy generation is very challenging in Alaska. “Tidal is likely the most promising. The issue currently is that technology has not caught up to our desire. However, looking out on the horizon, tidal is one of the most quickly advancing fields.”

6. “Rates are going increase,” due to a number of issues, Garcia said, including the current predominance of natural gas as an energy source, and the aging Railbelt infrastructure which will need to be upgraded and replaced. “I will say the only way we’re going to be able to stabilize rates in the future is through renewable resources.”

7. “HEA can be the leader in integration of renewable resources in the state of Alaska. In our backyard in the peninsula we have access to tidal, geothermal, solar, wind. If we harness these natural resources we can actually lead the way for the state.”

8. Garcia said he has been married 21 years, has two daughters and is a foster parent, foreign exchange student host and youth sports coach. “I try to live by a central philosophy, ‘I choose to be different by choice, rather than by chance.’”

Bill Warren, Nikiski

1. “I’ve always been interested in energy in our community. I think we need a comprehensive energy program for Alaska and this community.”

2. Warren has lived in the area since 1955 and his career was in construction, including as a pipe fitter and welder who worked on powerhouses and the Nikiski industrial plants. “I think that I have studied energy issues at great length and I think that I have a lot to contribute.”

3. Warren said he doesn’t think HEA should continue to purchase power from Chugach. “I think we should always be associated with the five Railbelt utilities. I think GRETC is going to be the wave of the future. We’re going to have to get together for the finances to have a comprehensive energy grid throughout the state.”

4. Warren is in favor of Independent Light. “We control our own destiny, our own resource base and power generation, and a little plum is it will take 30 jobs from Anchorage that Chugach now does and we will do them here. Plus, it’s 30 jobs with really no added cost, just a different way of doing things. Independent Light would make us self-sufficient for our power.”

5. Natural gas — “I would like to see the all-Alaska gas pipeline with (gubernatorial candidate) Bill Walker. We would have natural gas as a fuel for 100 or 200 years. Then I think that the utility companies will band together and secure a long-term gas contract to get the price right, and we will not have these ups and down in our fuel costs. It will level off and be stable.”

Coal: “N-O no. It’s got three times as many carbon molecules as gas. It’s just too difficult to have a clean operation with coal.”

“Wind is a very good thing to pursue. I would like to see pilot projects like (Kenai Wind), for us to pursue that and get it on the grid, monitor it, check its reliability and check the costs and go from there. I think wind will probably be phased in with a higher percentage requirement over time.” Warren said he’d also support windmills installed on platforms in Cook Inlet. “I’ve worked out there. I know that that wind can blow your hat off any day of the week, so it’s viable.”

“I’m not too keen on hydro because of the environmental damages to our fisheries. That’s not to say I wouldn’t like to look at the engineering feasibility of it, but I don’t see anything right now in our future for our area. And anything huge would have to come from the state.”

“I think geothermal is interesting, because we have a lot of heat down there and I’d like to see how we can utilize it. Tidal in the inlet, I’d like to see that happen (on oil platforms in the inlet). … Primarily I’m a basic guy. I know a lot of people think differently than me, they want to jump right into this with renewables. I’m a very practical, pragmatic person. I don’t see that happening until it’s phased in.”

6. “I think lower rates are realistic to achieve in the future. It’s something I personally would go all out for. It would entail a comprehensive energy system for Alaska. The problem is we have to think about the big picture and not too locally.”

7. “I want to quit the option list. I want to hit delete. I want us to do what we have to do to make this state work in the 21st century. I don’t think the world moves an inch without energy, and we need to take action, instead of studies. It’s time to do something, get us running really smoothly, then tie these others (renewables) in. … I’d like to see HEA engaged in the future in good, clear thinking on renewables, not to forget about it just because we have gas, but to actively try to engage renewables into our grid.”

8. “I’m hard-working, I’m focused and I’m honest.”

District 2 — Soldotna, Sterling, Kasilof

Debbie Debnam, Soldotna

1. Debnam is running for re-election to finish the last three-year term she is eligible to serve.

2. Debnam said she has experience in the utility industry in Alaska since the 1970s, including in leadership positions. She currently is chair of the HEA Board of Directors and has served in other board chair capacities. “I have gotten a lot of education in the utility industry from my previous job and just lots of years of training.”

3. “I think we should have a good working relationship. There are projects we may want to do together,” but Debnam doesn’t want HEA to renew its contract with Chugach. “There’s transmission issues between Chugach and HEA’s service territories that are of huge concern to me as far as reliability is concerned. I’m really interested in more of the local generation. If there’s a major disaster, it would be better to have smaller units — either renewables or gas generation units — here on the peninsula that we can fire up in the case that we can’t get electricity through the grid.”

4. Debnam is a proponent of Independent Light, which she said will give HEA more control over dispatching its share of power from Bradley Lake and other generation sources, as well as allow renewable energy to be integrated. “It’s kind of the difference between renting your generation or owning your own generation. It’s going to cause the rates to go up for a while, but rates would go up whether we buy power from Chugach on a new contract or generate our own because all of the utilities needed to build new generation. We expect the rates to level off over time.”

5. Natural gas: “There is not another source of fuel that can generate enough electricity right now that will meet our base generation needs. So right now we are pretty much at the mercy of natural gas. It is cleaner than a lot of other fuels, and there’s a lot of it.”

“Coal is a very cheap way of generating electricity. (But) under the current scenario, we certainly wouldn’t be able to get a coal plant permitted in time for when our contract with Chugach expires. I just don’t see that in our future.”

“Everybody loves wind. The reality is we don’t have a robust enough system to integrate it right now.” Debnam said an HEA contingent recently lobbied legislators in Juneau for $7 million for a battery backup system to bring wind power online for HEA. “If that financial aspect can be met we may have 14 megawatts of wind brought online before the end of the year, which would be really, really, really cool.” Debnam said she also contributes financially to the SNAP program.

“Everybody loves hydro, too. It’s very clean, very renewable.” She said she’s visited Skagway and was impressed with the multiple small-scale hydro facilities in operation there.

“Solar, I don’t know much about. With tidal, everything is fairly exploratory right now, so even though those projects are of great interest to me and other members of our board and community, our little utility right now does not have a research and development department. We’re not big enough to go out and do the research and studies, in the millions of dollars, it takes to get some of these projects started. … The ratepayers would not be able to afford a budget that would include hiring additional staff to explore those or other technologies, in the near future, anyway.”

6. “Especially last winter, you couldn’t conserve enough to save your soul. It went from conservation to desperation and I would not like to see another winter like that. There are ways of keeping costs down. Unfortunately a lot of renewables, unless there’s a huge influx of grant money, it won’t mean cheaper electricity. What you get from renewables in today’s market is just a good feeling that you helped Mother Earth. The economics just aren’t there yet.”

7. “My vision is to have a small, robust generation system down here that can sustain itself in the event of a major disaster. That we can add renewables efficiently and effectively, and that the jobs now in Anchorage and Beluga would be here on the peninsula.”

8. “I am a very strong member advocate. … I feel very strongly that I listen to members about what their concerns are. One of reasons I am successful in my little business (Alaska Wedding Brokers in Sterling) is I embrace and listen to people.”

Ken Hepner, Soldotna

1. “I was looking to help Homer Electric Association get ahead of the curve and move in a more positive, different direction than it has been. And I’m looking at trying to stabilize prices somewhat. It seems like (rates change) every three months, when gas prices come in. It makes it kind of hard for folks to budget. So I’m looking toward alternative sources of electrical generation.”

2. Hepner has been on the peninsula for 28 years and has “practically been on every board of directors in the area,” including Central Emergency Services, Women’s Resource and Crisis Center, and Cook Inlet Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. He came to the area as a Methodist minister and worked a great deal with Native ministries, which may help him work with Native corporations on energy issues, he said.

3. “I certainly want to talk to Chugach, keep those lines of communication open and let them know honestly where we’re at and hear honestly where they’re at and see what happens. I don’t have any predictions but I think the more we can produce here, the better we’re going to be.”

4. Hepner is in support of the Nikiski generation proposal, and wants to further investigate the proposal to install generators in Soldotna. “I don’t have enough information on what it would cost,” he said.

5. Natural gas: “It’s obvious we’re not going to get away from that. It’s the primary energy source, we have to burn gas to get electricity. But hopefully we can get a steady supply and at least know for the future what that’s going to cost us. … The gas supply (in the Cook Inlet basin) has peaked, for sure, and that’s going to start dropping off. (A bullet line and importing liquefied natural gas) and all these things cost a lot of money. I’m hoping my emphasis on renewable energy for electricity generation is going to maybe start to ween us off our dependency on natural gas.”

Coal: “I’m least interested in coal. It’s always the fallback because there’s a lot of it and it’s cheap in the short run, but it costs in mercury emissions, nitrous oxide, sulphur oxide and carbon emissions. In the long run it is just far too expensive and risky to bother with anymore.”

Hepner supports wind generation and would like to see continued research on its feasibility. “Wind doesn’t cost us anything. … I think that will help keep the fluctuation in prices from going up and down. It’s also going to be better for our environment.” Hepner said he is interested in the state possibly mandating that a percentage of electrical generation in Alaska come from wind. That would create the possibility for federal tax incentives or other governmental support for developing wind-generation capacity.

Hydro: “It’s something to look into, especially across the inlet. I don’t know about here on the Kenai Peninsula. I certainly am opposed to hydro if it affects the fisheries at all.”

Hepner said he is interested in a proposed geothermal project across the inlet, and doesn’t see much potential for solar generation in Alaska. “Tidal is definitely something that interests me. We need incentives to make it cost effective. We’ve got the second-highest up-and-down tides in the world here so why not take a look at that and see what develops?”

6. “What I want to do is have policies that stabilize the prices. Cheap gas is over and I think we have to come right out and say that’s the fact. … We’re stuck with gas for right now. It’s going to be the majority of our fuel for the near future. But maybe we can stabilize those prices by using alternative energy sources.”

7. I would like HEA to set a goal of a certain percentage (minimum of 10 percent) of our electrical generation being based on alternative energy sources and then working toward reaching that goal. I would say minimum of 10 percent. … I think HEA should keep its eyes open toward the GRETC. I think one small electrical utility is not going to have much of an influence on prices, but if the whole Railbelt is involved there might be an impact on prices. … So that would be a goal, to work much more openly and honestly with all the utilities.”

8. “I’m going to always be a person who is listening to whatever anybody has to say. The best way to accomplish something is to listen and talk. By working together I think that we can make a difference.”

District 3 — Kasilof south

Bill Fry, Homer

1. “One of my superintendents on the (North) Slope used to say, ‘Are you part of the problem or are you part of the solution?’ If we end up burning coal or going away from renewables and more toward using gas permanently, then I can’t complain about it if I didn’t participate in the process.”

2. Fry has been a peninsula resident since 1975, worked on the North Slope for 20 years, owns Bear Creek Winery with his wife, has a windmill to generate power and is pursuing training on board operations. “And I know about energy from the upstream side, coming out of the ground, so I have unique experience that not many board members have. I will say about the board, I’ve observed it’s a very like-minded and forward-thinking board. I’ve been very impressed by it so far.”

3. “(Chugach) can dictate a lot of other stuff that we do. Like for Kenai Winds, we have to get their permission to buy that power from Kenai Winds. That’s not a good position to be in. I’d rather be as part of the Railbelt, a group of utilities banding together to try and put on a big renewable project. We shouldn’t be dependent on them. We shouldn’t be dependent on anybody, really.”

4. “I’d love Independent Light if there was nothing else but there are a lot of little irons in the fire right now. Independent Light’s a great way to go, but maybe we can do some other things, maybe diversify, who knows? It’s not really carved in stone yet.”

5. “The thing with natural gas is we’re already set up for it. But the problem is the fuel cost associated with it. With renewables, there’s no fuel costs through the years. However, they’re really expensive up front, and that’s what we’re working on, to find a way to get the renewables where they’re not so prohibitive to start with. We’re already paying off a debt, we want to add to that as little possible.”

“I don’t see a future with coal. … It’s so far from us. We want to make power on the peninsula, however we do it.”

“Obviously I like wind, I have a wind turbine at my business. I really like the Kenai Winds idea. That’s a shovel-ready project that may go soon, I hope it does anyway. We just have to figure out a way to integrate it. But HEA has a great staff and they are awesome so I’m sure they’ll figure out a way to do it.”

“I toured Bradley Lake and it’s awesome. Everyone’s opposed to damming up rivers and salmon streams,” however, Fry said he’s been told that hydro dams can improve anadromous fish habitat by regulating water flow and temperature. “It can actually improve the river. A lot of people don’t know that. I like hydro — it’s clean. I like anything clean that doesn’t have a fuel cost with it.”

Fry is planning on installing solar panels at his winery, but said he doesn’t know about its large-scale generation potential. “But tidal now, we’re in a world-class tidal area here. We’re talking about it as a board. Again, that is really expensive. It’s a million dollars a mile to run underground cables in the inlet. It’s a great idea to use the platforms out there, put some windmills on top and slap some tidal turbines on the sides or something, but … they all have to be paid.”

6. “Whether we keep buying from Chugach or make our own generation, rates are going to go up. The other night I came home from a meeting and I realized I had voted to raise my own bill. It was kind of a moment for me. But it’s expensive to make power here. … I think what’s going to help that is if all the utilities get together (with the Greater Railbelt Energy and Transmission Corporation). If all the utilities get together and can do a big geothermal or a large-scale hydro, that would be awesome for the state, because we’re all tied together.”

7. “We’re using clean power that’s really inexpensive. That’s what everybody on the board wants. I’m sure all the candidates want that, too. The hard part is renewables are so expensive up front. That’s what we’ve got to try and work around.”

8. Fry invites anyone interested to come by his winery and check out the wind turbine installation.

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