SEAPA CEO: 'Overwhelming misinformation' in TBPA debate
Southeast Alaska Power Agency CEO Trey Acteson this week decried what he called the ‘overwhelming amount of misinformation’ circulated at a city council meeting Sept. 24.
Acteson focused primarily on accusations made at that meeting during the public comments section. In particular, he cited rumors of a rate increase, the possibility of new diesel construction, and statements about the SEAPA payroll, saying they were false. At least one SEAPA board member disagreed with Acteson’s characterization of the debate.
Both he and SEAPA keep the wallets of Southeast consumers at heart, Acteson said.
“My goal as CEO is to hold rates steady,” he said.
Southeast has maintained a wholesale rate at 6.8 cents per kilowatt-hour – a standard measurement of energy used for billing, enough to burn a 60-watt bulb for more than 16 hours, or a 1,000-watt heater for one hour – for the past 16 years, according to a letter to the Wrangell Borough Assembly. Acteson claimed that when combined with annual rebates issued to the municipal utilities, the rate actually amounted to less than the stated rate.
Wrangell SEAPA representative Bryan Ashton, contacted for his perspective on the debate, said in an email that claim was a partial truth.
“The SEAPA board has been asked to consider rate increases and discontinue the rebates for the past two years now,” he wrote. “The board has rejected those considerations so far.”
Additional planned SEAPA projects don’t include more diesel generation, Acteson said. A possible takeover suggested by outgoing Thomas Bay Power Authority commissioner Warren Edgley, would increase the financial impact of any development undertaken in the future.
“To build out new projects could cost in the $100-million, $200-million range,” he said.
If capital for new projects in Southeast Alaska must be raised, SEAPA divides the rate increase by a larger number of consumers, lessening the net impact to each bill, Acteson said.
“If one of the utilities does that, it only has so many meters to spread that cost out,” he said.
Both sides in the TBPA debate regularly make accusations of conflicts of interest. Those claims are hard to refute, in part because players on both sides wear many hats. Clay Hammer is a statutory member of the Thomas Bay Power Commission, but he’s also the Wrangell utility’s power superintendent and an alternate member of the SEAPA board. Rhonda Christian, a vocal opponent of a proposed SEAPA takeover of TBPA is also a Thomas Bay employee, and the wife of assembly member Ernie Christian (Christian, who was voted off the assembly board in the Oct. 1 municipal election, has recused himself from applicable assembly votes). The two recently engaged in a heated exchange after a Borough assembly meeting.
While there are many ways to interpret these accusations and the divisions causing them, Acteson sees the conflict primarily in terms of industry insiders versus industry outsiders.
“Overlapping boards is not a good practice,” he said. “I tend to give a little bit more validity to people in the industry. I believe Clay (Hammer) has the best interest of his community at heart. The people on the other side seem to be more motivated by financial concerns.”
Both sides have oversimplified arguments in the past, according to Ashton.
“In my observation over the past couple years, there have been generalized and/or aggrandized statements made within SEAPA and TBPA,” he wrote. “When information is generalized or aggrandized to suggest a sided bias, it confuses the issue and discredits the person and organization that person represents.”
Ashton characterized the disagreement as territorial.
“My impression is that we have a turf war that has been brewing for many years,” he wrote. “I have heard both sides (TBPA and SEAPA) and each has truth and error. It needs to stop and the executive boards need to start wisely leading the organizations with productive communication between them and their leaders.”
A proposed road and ferry route from the Bradfield Canal to Highway 37 in British Columbia is fraught with problems, Acteson said.
“If you look at the economics, it really doesn’t make sense. There’s no market for us there, and we don’t need that much power. Is it worth making a huge capital investment for two or three megawatts?”
Environmental concerns could also delay the Bradfield Corridor, according to Acteson’s letter.
“To my understanding the … corridor is already dealt with through an agreement between the State of Alaska and the U.S. Forest Service,” he wrote. “Partnering with BC (BC Hyrdo, the company responsible for generation in British Columbia) in ways that fall outside our SEAPA partnership may be of interest to our borough, since we are the deep-sea port nearest to the Bradfield road corridor.”
As for accusations — levied by retired state Sen. Robin Taylor — that SEAPA hasn’t presented an impressive vision for the future of hydroelectric generation in Southeast Alaska, Acteson says SEAPA is primarily focused on smaller projects.
“We’re focused on small modifications – small, low-hanging fruit,” he said.
He cited a recently constructed weir dam at the Tyee Lake facility, cooling water for that facility and a planned modest raise in Ketchikan’s Swan Lake dam as examples.