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‘Things are radically changing’: Golden Valley exec Says Utility is Focused on the Future

Golden Valley Electric Association

Golden Valley Electric Association is celebrating 75 years of service to Fairbanks and outlying communities around the eastern Interior. But Golden Valley’s top executive says the utility’s management and board are focused on operating the utility in the 21st century.

Golden Valley President and CEO John Burns says the utility has come a long way since it was incorporated in 1946, when it had just over a hundred members.

“These were visionaries,” he said Tuesday in an online presentation. “These individuals saw the power of electricity to improve lives and to improve the economic future.”

Today, Golden Valley has more than 36,000 members and a system that stretches from Healy to Delta Junction. Burns says the co-op began building that system when it bought an old coal-fired power plant located next door to its headquarters on Illinois Street from Fairbanks Electric, the long-defunct company known as FE.

“The FE power plant, we purchased in 1952,” he said. The old 9.4-megawatt power plant and a couple of others that Golden Valley built and bought over the next few decades helped keep rates down by generating electricity with a cheap and readily available coal from the Usibelli mine near Healy.

Burns says the utility’s 55-year-old Healy 1 plant still is its cheapest to operate. But he says Golden Valley must decide soon whether to upgrade the plant’s emissions-control system – or shut down the facility.

“We have to make a decision by December 31, 2022 as to whether we are going to put an SCR for emissions or close it out,” he said, referring to a Selective Catalytic Reduction unit.

Credit KUAC file photo
Golden Valley's two coal-fired power plants in Healy produce some of its cheapest electricity. The 50-megawatt Healy 2, left, began operation in 2016. The much smaller 25-megawatt Healy 1, right, has been operating since 1967.

Burns says those are the kinds of challenges that led Golden Valley’s management and board to develop a series of directives and policies in recent years that he sketched-out in an online talk hosted by the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp.

“As we all know, the electric industry of today is not going to be the electric industry of tomorrow,” he said. “Things are radically changing – and much of it is for the better.”

To accommodate that future, Burns says Golden Valley has pledged to reduce emissions of climate-changing carbon dioxide. And along with other Railbelt utilities it’s invested in projects that will boost the output of the 20-megawatt Bradley Lake Hydroelectric facility.

Burns said the utilities also plan to upgrade the transmission line to carry more current from the hydro project near the tip of the Kenai Peninsula, “So that we can get more Bradley power up into Anchorage and then up along the Intertie into Fairbanks.”

Credit screenshot
In thumbnail photos at right, Burns and Meadow Bailey – Golden Valley's director of External Affairs and Public Relations – talk about the utility's past, present and future in a Zoom presentation hosted by the Fairbanks Economic Development Corp. In addition to FEDCO officers, shown in top thumbnail, nearly 40 others logged-in to the talk.

Burns says Golden Valley also is backing legislation that would create the Railbelt Reliability Council. The organization would coordinate planning by its six member utilities and ensure the resiliency of their power-transmission system – including the two interties that link Golden Valley with utilities to the south.

“Y’know,” he said, “if it’s 40 below, and there’s an issue with that intertie, you guys are not going to be happy.”

Burns says Golden Valley also supports efforts to build the so-called Roadbelt Intertie, a series of transmission lines that would link all the Railbelt utilities and create a true grid that would improve service for communities along the state’s road system.

Other goals include looking for more ways to generate electricity with renewable energy sources like wind and solar. And promoting greater use of electric-powered vehicles by setting up a new charging station at Golden Valley’s offices – just down the street from where the old F-E power plant was located.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.