Community outreach done right

I had the opportunity to edit a piece for the July 2015 edition of Hydro Review magazine titled, “Success for Sitka”, that chronicled the expansion of Alaska’s Blue Lake hydroelectric plant, and while the work was interesting enough by itself, I was particularly intrigued by the community outreach program the project’s developers conducted.

Per the authors of the Hydro Review article, the “greatest risk in moving forward with the $142 million project were the rate hikes implemented so the City of Sitka could meet its bond covenants.”

Sitka, which had not seen a utility rate increase in three decades before construction began in 2012, suddenly saw rates increase more than 37% in three tiers over a two-year span.

The community backlash could have been severe, but the Blue Lake expansion was embraced by the public – and to the great credit of the project’s developers, I suspect that had largely to do with the manner in which they proactively engaged plant beneficiaries from the start.

In addition to town hall meetings, informational publications, school outreach programs and monthly construction site tours, the developers commissioned a series of four films – the last of which was just released.

Produced by filmmaker Hannah Guggenheim, the film – titled “DamNatural” – highlights Blue Lake’s planning, design and construction.

And even though the film’s release comes more than a year after the Blue Lake expansion’s completion in December 2014, Sitka said the success of the project is one that could be emulated by other hydropower developers.

“A successful expansion of a dam and building of a new powerhouse doesn’t come easy, and Sitka has paved the path for similar projects by shining a proverbial light on what renewable energy looks like,” said Bryan Bertacchi, Utility Director for the City and Borough of Sitka.

The expansion — which included the raising of the Blue Lake Dam by more than 80 feet, a new powerhouse with three new turbines, and the installation of a new intake and tunnel – has left Sitka with the fifth-lowest utility rates in Alaska, while also opening the door for bulk water support given the reservoir’s vastly increased storage capacity.

“Sitka is a community based on living close to the natural environment, and it is fitting that the power comes from what is most naturally abundant in Sitka – the rain,” Bertacchi said.

The developer’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by others either, with one of Blue Lake’s previous films having won honorable mention honors at the 2010 Anchorage International Film Festival and McMillen Jacobs Associates earning an Outstanding Stewards of America’s Waters award from the National Hydropower Association in 2015 for coordinating the outreach program.

I’d encourage everyone to take a few moments to watch the 17-minute long film, if anything to see what the article’s authors repeatedly and earnestly referred to as a true labor of love.

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Michael Harris formerly was Editor for HydroWorld.com.

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