Railbert electric grid: status check on projects.

Author:Sommer, Susan
Position::SPECIAL SECTION: Energy & Power
 
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Alaska's Railbelt stretches from the Kenai Peninsula north to Fairbanks, more than five hundred miles. Seventy percent of the state's population lives along this corridor and requires safe, efficient electricity. Six utilities provide electric power in this region. A status check along the Railbelt grid is revealing.

Matanuska Electric Association

Matanuska Electric Association is poised to become a vertically integrated utility--generating, transmitting, and distributing its own power. Scheduled to come online by the end of 2014, the co-op's Eklutna Generation Station (EGS) is a turning point after having purchased its power from Chugach Electric Association (CEA) since 1950.

"EGS is MEA's largest infrastructure project by far," said MEA's General Manager Joe Griffith at the annual meeting in April. The generation plant houses ten massive dual-fuel Wartsila engines that burn natural gas but can switch seamlessly to burning diesel should that ever be necessary. MEA expects the generation station to provide power to Southcentral Alaska for the next several decades.

Also speaking at the annual meeting was MEA Board President Lois Lester, who said, "EGS means a lot to the Railbelt electrical system, providing additional capacity from efficient natural gas-fueled engines that can be economically dispatched throughout the entire system. This adds to grid reliability and the bottom line of all our Railbelt colleagues."

This past summer, MEA signed a contract with Hilcorp to supply natural gas to EGS until March 2018.

MEA sits at the center of Alaska's Railbelt system, which stretches from Homer to Fairbanks and provides electricity to the majority of Alaska's population. MEA alone serves more than fifty-nine thousand customers. "While we think of the Railbelt as a large system," said Griffith, "compared to the interconnected grid in the Lower 48 and Europe, it is small, isolated, and fragile. The majority of our infrastructure was built between 1940 and 1960, when Alaska's load was significantly less ... Numerous upgrades are required to bring this system up to the level required today." Transmission line and substation upgrades are just two ways MEA is addressing aging infrastructure.

MEA also has two small hydroelectric facilities and is a one-third owner of Eklutna Hydroelectric along with Anchorage Municipal Light & Power (ML&P) and CEA.

But there's a larger picture, too, for all of the electric utilities to consider. "The Railbelt utilities recognize the...

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