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‘Huge decision’: GVEA board to vote on fate of Healy 1 power plant

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Golden Valley Electric Association
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The 28-megawatt Healy Unit 1 power plant, right, sits next to the newer 50-megawatt Healy Unit 2. Both are located near the town of Healy, near the Usibelli Coal Mine, which provides fuel for the power plants.

Environmentalists urge board to consider impacts of coal-fired plant's emissions: air pollution, climate change

After 18 months of studies and discussions, Golden Valley Electric Association’s board of directors will consider Monday whether to upgrade a 55-year-old coal-fired power plant or shut it down.

Golden Valley board Chair Tom DeLong last month summed-up the gravity of the issue about the fate of Healy Unit 1 that’s before the board in a special meeting on Monday.

“This is an incredibly challenging decision,” Long said during two public meetings Golden Valley held last month in Healy and Fairbanks. The meetings were convened to explain the utility’s need to decide whether to spend $30 million to retrofit Healy Unit 1 with a pollution-control system or shut it down and replace it with alternative sources, including renewable energy generated by wind and solar.

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KUAC file graphic
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The Healy Power Plant, which includes both Healy Unit 1 and Unit 2, a located about 50 miles south of Fairbanks on the Parks Highway.

A Fairbanks environmental advocate agrees with DeLong.

“This is a huge decision. It will impact our community for so many generations to come,” says Kenzley Defler, the energy justice coordinator for the Fairbanks Climate Action Coalition.

Defler says the environmental community strongly favors shutting down Healy 1 and replacing it with a renewable energy source. She acknowledges that many Golden Valley ratepayers disagree, because coal-generated electricity is cheap. But she says it comes with its own costs, in the form of air pollution and carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that’s warming Earth’s climate.

“If they do decide to keep Healy 1 open and continue burning coal, that decision would lock us into fossil-fuel dependency for years to come,” she said.

The 28-megawatt power plant is the oldest in Golden Valley’s fleet, but it’s also the most reliable. The power it produces costs around 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, including operational costs. That’s second only to Bradley Lake Hydro Project power, which costs about 4 cents per kilowatt-hour. That and jobs were the main reasons cited by most of the people who showed up at the two meetings and others who submitted comments afterward. People like Christopher Stainbrook, who lives in Healy.

“I think it’s a no-brainer, personally. The plant runs like a Swiss watch, and it’s great for the community,” he said during the May 16 meeting in Healy.

But Defler says there’s now an even cheaper source of energy than coal, and it’s generated by the sun and the wind.

“In the past 10 years, renewable-energy technology has improved significantly,” she said. “And the price of commercial solar has dropped 90 percent, the price of wind energy has dropped over 70 percent.”

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Ian Dickson / KTOO
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The Bradley Lake Hydro Project near Homer produces about 17 percent of Golden Valley's electricity. It's the utility's cheapest source of power.

Golden Valley officials say the utility must first upgrade its grid so it’s able to back up the intermittent power of renewables that peter-out when the sun is down and the wind stops blowing. Defler says she’d like to see the studies that support that argument and other documents that Golden Valley has generated over the past 18 months it’s been studying the Healy 1 issue.

“That really makes it hard for us to know what alternatives GVEA may be considering, she said, “and exactly what they’re basing their decisions on.”

GVEA spokesperson Meadow Bailey said that information isn’t yet available publicly, but its consultant will talk about it as part of presentation on a related issue to be considered during Monday’s meeting: development of a plan for the utility’s power-generation sources.

“Our consultant goes through and reviews all of the scenarios and talks through all the different modeling that was looked at and what some of the findings were,” Bailey said in an interview Thursday.

The board will allow public comment before considering adopting a measure to begin work on a Strategic Generation Plan, and then begin deliberating over the Healy 1 issue. Golden Valley agreed 10 years ago to close or upgrade the plant by the end of 2024, as part of a deal with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Monday’s meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the utility's headquarters in Fairbanks, and it's accessible only by telephone or online. Information on how to dial-in or log-on is available on the meetings page on the GVEA website.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.