McMillen Jacobs Associates

Public Education

Community Involvement and Contribution in the Blue Lake Hydroelectric Expansion

Summary

DCIM100GOPROOn Baranof Island in Southeast Alaska sits the small town of Sitka. Sitkans are known for being fiercely independent and very interested in all aspects of their community. Two years ago when the construction on the expansion of one of their two hydroelectric dams began, it was known that the Utility would have to keep the town informed and heavily involved but how? The City of Sitka Electric Department sought to keep the public engaged with the Blue Lake Expansion Project since not only were they directly paying for over 2/3 of the $150 million project, but also passing along those costs to future Sitkans over the 30 year bond payment. They came up with a series of efforts that proved to be amazingly successful at keeping the public informed and supportive which was a fundamental reason for the overwhelming success of the entire project, despite a substantial rate increase to pay for it.

Background

Sitka is a town of only 8,000 ratepayers and is located on the edge of an island. The only electrical grid is an islanded system completely run on hydroelectricity. In 1961 the Blue Lake Project was built just a few miles out of town. It consists of a single arch 210’ tall dam and a powerhouse with two horizontal driven 3 MW turbines.

In 2007, as the escalating cost of oil prompted the move to electric heat, Sitka was in desperate need of additional hydroelectric energy to eliminate the need for costly diesel generation. The solution was raising the Blue Lake Dam by 83’ and adding a new powerhouse with three new turbines to provide a total of 15.9 MW.

Challenge

The challenges began with bid opening. All bids were 50% greater than the estimate. This did nothing to soothe the negativity towards the project. Immediately, the City of Sitka began an open dialogue with to convince ratepayers this was the best long-term solution. At the end of the evaluation, the City Assembly voted 7 – 0 in favor of moving forward.

The City of Sitka, Construction Manager (McMillen Jacobs Associates), Owner (City of Sitka), and Contractor (Barnard Construction) began work on informing the legislative dignitaries and the locals. Normally, a project of this magnitude could lead to disputes. However, each company worked together to achieve goals—especially community involvement.

Ongoing community involvement for 1 ½ years paid dividends when the town’s drinking water needed to be switched from the pristine unfiltered Blue Lake water to highly filtered/chlorinated Indian River water. The challenge of asking a town to conserve electricity and drink “muddy” water was a feat. However, the community supported and participated in the project.

This town had not experienced a utility rate increase in 30 years. In order to meet bond covenants, the City of Sitka implemented 3 tiers of rate hikes in just 2 years. The rates were raised over 37% and could have produced a major backlash. However, through efforts of public education regarding why it was so important for them and future generations, something completely different happened.

Innovation

Prior to the start of construction, the responsibility to inform the public was great. A series of videos were shared online, aired on local access television, and presented at public meetings. The first video, Rain Power, explained why hydro is so important to the small town of Sitka. This film earned honorable mention at the 2010 Anchorage International Film Festival. The subsequent films were short public service announcements. The final film is yet to be produced but will encapsulate the project from inception to completion.

With video ready and construction beginning in December 2012, the time was ripe for innovative public education including construction site tours and indoor public presentations when the weather was poor. Before the first tour ran in April of 2013, the public was invited to visit websites including Facebook and YouTube. The social media presence proved to be most successful in drawing in residents for tours.

When the first sign up sheet was opened 2 weeks prior to the bus tour, each of the 100 spots on the 2-hour tour was taken in a matter of hours. The owner, construction manager, and contractor all participated to make the tour as successful as possible by collectively creating a presentation, a brochure, and a map of the tour. On a snowy Sunday afternoon in April, 100 Sitkans piled in to their community hall eagerly awaiting their first Blue Lake Dam tour.

The first tour’s overwhelming success led to monthly tours of the construction site April –September in 2013 and 2014. Each tour consisted of a presentation, a tour of the dam site and powerhouse, and a view of Alaska’s largest crane.

After 10 public tours with a total of 1,000 residents, people were buzzing with their new knowledge of the project. This education enabled the team to do their job effectively and efficiently with very little public pushback. This was most important during the biggest challenge of the project – the generation outage.

The team started a media blitz a month before the two-month outage and then weekly updates were sent informing the town of exactly what was going on. Instead of a small town in chaos, everyone banded together and toughed out the two months because, again, they understood what was on the line.

Results

This campaign has accomplished two goals. 1) Sitkans staked their claim to energy independence, and 2) They have clearly demonstrated to the nation that hydro is not a bad word. With collaboration among agencies, elected leaders, and local environmentalists—all with an intimate understanding of the community, we met this energy challenge.