Alaska has incredible potential for hydropower, when it’s done right

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When you flip a light switch in Alaska, do you know where the electricity comes from? It doesn’t all come from the same place.

While natural gas and oil account for most of the state’s electricity, more than a fifth comes from renewables.

In fact, Alaska’s goal calls for producing half of the state’s energy with renewables such as solar, wind, tidal and hydropower by the year 2025. As Alaskans, we’re eager to get there. What Alaska community doesn’t seek low-cost, clean and reliable energy options? And given the changes we are seeing to our climate, we’re increasingly aware of the imperative for carbon-neutral energy sources.

Currently, 20 percent of Alaska’s electrical production, compared to 7 percent for the U.S. as a whole comes from hydropower. In Alaska, opportunities to tap the energy of flowing water still cover the map.

At the same time, Alaska has a particularly special relationship with its rivers: Our state produces more salmon than any place on Earth. Salmon are a mainstay of our state’s economy and they’re essential to the Alaska way of life. Fortunately, science has already taught us what salmon need to thrive.

For hydropower to make sense here, it needs to pass an Alaska litmus test: Developing hydropower cannot come at the expense of salmon.

The next step, then, is to conceive, design and operate all hydropower projects with salmon in mind from the very beginning so that they meet these criteria:

• Hydropower projects should avoid salmon streams whenever possible;
• Hydropower projects must allow fish to migrate freely, both upstream and downstream;
• River flows must not be altered beyond minimum and maximum thresholds that allow fish populations to thrive;
• Development must allow for the downstream transport of the river’s natural sediment and wood — a key function of a healthy river; and
• A dam must be designed and operated in a way that doesn’t alter downstream water temperatures.

Our analysis — in the form of an ecological risk assessment of hydropower development on large braided rivers with salmon — shows large dams would have a hard time meeting these criteria.

There’s good news too: It’s entirely possible for an Alaska hydropower project to pass our litmus test. In fact, many already have.

To list just a few examples: Near Valdez, the Allison Creek hydroelectric project now under construction is a run-of-river development — that is, it doesn’t block fish or the river’s natural sediment. Projects at Blue Lake near Sitka and Black Bear Lake on Prince of Wales Island generate electricity on systems where salmon aren’t present. Cordova’s Power Creek run-of-river hydropower project is built upstream from spawning areas and allows natural sediment to travel downstream. Energy from Alaska’s 50 licensed hydropower facilities displaces millions of gallons of fossil fuels annually, at a big savings for communities.

Alaska has already come far, but we can do more. Our state’s own renewable energy goal challenges us to do so.

Worldwide hydropower production is expected to double over the next 20 years. We’re not envisioning a new boom in megaprojects like those of the past. Instead, smaller, more efficient and far less environmentally damaging technologies are gaining momentum. Alaska is poised to help lead the new era of sustainable hydropower.

The time for unleashing innovation and a healthy dose of Alaska know-how is now. So long as we take care of the natural assets that have always provided for us, we’ll have a bright future ahead.