Interesting stuff: Anchorage solar project advances, parking rates could rise and state explores tunnel under Knik Arm

Plus: Tribal governments near a major proposed graphite mine on the Seward Peninsula criticize the Biden administration for failing to consult them before granting $37.5 million to the project.

Interesting stuff: Anchorage solar project advances, parking rates could rise and state explores tunnel under Knik Arm
An artist’s rendering of the Knik Arm Crossing from a 2019 report commissioned by the state of Alaska.

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A Knik Arm tunnel?

State transportation leaders say they’re taking another look at the idea of using a tunnel instead of a bridge to connect the city of Anchorage with undeveloped land across the Knik Arm, in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Alaska politicians have advanced the idea of the Knik Arm bridge in the past as a way for Anchorage area residents and workers to access more developable land in the Mat-Su.

But some Anchorage residents — particularly in the Government Hill neighborhood, where one end of the bridge would sit — have criticized its steep price tag and its displacement of neighborhood homes and businesses. A 2019 study estimated construction costs for the bridge to be some $900 million.

The controversial plan has been largely dormant in recent years, after independent former Gov. Bill Walker stopped work on it amid a state budget shortfall in 2016. Three years later, Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy removed restrictions on advancing the bridge, but his administration has made little tangible progress.

A previous analysis in 2003 examined the idea of a tunnel instead of a bridge. Now, given “significant increases in tunneling technology,” the state transportation department is taking another look at the concept, Commissioner Ryan Anderson said in an email.

“We continue with our due diligence efforts on evaluating the merits of strengthened Mat-Su Anchorage connections,” Anderson said. “These are exploratory discussions; there are no actions being taken at this time.”

The department is also examining the use of tunnels for upgrades of the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood, Anderson said.

In both cases, the agency is looking at whether tunnels could reduce costs and permitting requirements. For the highway project, tunnels could also cut off curves and require less work to realign a parallel railroad bed, Anderson said.

Tribes say Biden administration failed to consult on grant to graphite mine

Three tribal governments near a major proposed graphite mine on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula say the Biden administration violated its own internal policies by granting $37.5 million to the Canadian company advancing the project without consulting with the tribes first.

The tribal governments of the communities of Teller, Brevig Mission and Mary’s Igloo each privately sent the letters in September to the U.S. Department of Defense, which announced the grant to Vancouver-based Graphite One in July.

The Iñupiaq village of Teller, on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, sits downstream of a major graphite mine that a Canadian company is advancing. (Berett Wilber for Northern Journal)

The tribes then shared the letters with the media in December, in part because the department hadn’t responded, said Hal Shepherd, a consultant working with the tribes.

"Our tribe…uses the area where the project is located for subsistence, and it is essential that we have an opportunity to be heard about our concerns for any extraction activities that could impact us," the letter said. "We ask the department to rectify this mistake and engage in consultation with our tribes on this funding decision and other decisions going forward that will impact our interests."

The six-page letters were drafted by the Anchorage-based environmental law firm Trustees for Alaska, and the tribes are also working with another advocacy group, Earthworks, that's helped other tribes making similar consultation requests of the Defense Department, Shepherd said.

Several leaders from the tribal governments have previously voiced concerns about the proposed graphite mine, which would sit next to an estuary that supports salmon and other species that residents of the region depend on for subsistence. The project is still in its early stages, and Graphite One has not yet applied for major environmental permits for construction.

In a prepared statement, a Pentagon spokesman, Jeff Jurgensen, cited the importance of domestic supply chains for “critical minerals” like graphite, which are key components of electrical vehicle batteries. Nearly all of the highly processed graphite currently used in electric vehicle batteries comes from China.

“While we do not have specific information to provide regarding the correspondence or claims referenced in your query, the Department of Defense understands the importance of both transparency and involvement from all parties affected by critical minerals efforts such as these,” Jurgensen said, adding that grant recipients must abide by all applicable laws, policies and regulations. “We will continue to work with our commercial, state, local and tribal organizations and partners to ensure activities are conducted accordingly.”

Graphite One’s chief executive, Anthony Huston, said in a prepared statement that “we want to hear the concerns, questions and ideas of all the stakeholders in Graphite Creek so we can continue working to put together the best possible project for the region.”

The three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, who all hailed the Defense Department grant when it was announced, did not address the tribes’ letter. A spokesman for Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola declined to comment, while spokespersons for Republican U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Community solar project in the works for Anchorage

Anchorage’s power utility, Chugach Electric Association, is advancing a project that would allow members to invest in and get power from a small new solar farm.

Chugach last week formally requested approval from state regulators for its “community solar program,” which would build a project with 1,280 individual panels that retail customers could buy into.

Individual Chugach members who want solar power but don’t want to or can’t install panels at their own residences could choose to pay for the power generated by up to 20 panels, at an estimated monthly cost of $22.27 for each panel.

If more Chugach members sign up than the 1,280 panels will support, the utility said it will use a lottery to decide which ones will get to participate.

The project’s estimated price tag is approximately $2.8 million, according to Chugach’s projections. But federal tax credits could reduce the cost by more than 25%, the utility said in its request.

If approved by the Regulatory Commission of Alaska, the project would start on a three-year pilot basis, with a February 2025 signup deadline and a launch in March 2025. The utility would set up the panels at a substation just south of Anchorage’s Dimond Center mall.

Chugach’s board endorsed the project in December, and it comes in response to “member interest,” the utility said in its proposal. In a survey last year, 77% of responding members said they were interested in subscribing, and 25% said they would subscribe even if it requires them to pay more for their electricity.

An average Chugach customer replacing the fossil fuel derived fraction of their current power bill with 13 panels of community solar power would see their $120 monthly bill rise to $193, or a 64% increase, utility staff said at a recent board meeting.

The project’s capacity would be 500 kilowatts, which, for a solar project, is typically enough to meet the full power demands of some 60 homes.

The regulatory commission in 2019 rejected a previous version of the program proposed by Chugach, calling it “too confusing and undefined to offer to the public.”

Anchorage parking rates could rise this year

Staff at Anchorage’s public parking agency have proposed boosting rates for garages and lots by as much as 40% — but the agency’s politically appointed board wants more time to review the idea.

Hourly rates at city-owned outdoor lots and indoor garages, like the one attached to the Fifth Avenue Mall downtown, would rise to $1.75 from $1.25 under the proposal, presented last month at a board meeting of the agency, the Anchorage Community Development Authority.

Monthly permits for the garages and lots would rise similarly — to $80 from $60 for the cheapest outdoor lot, and to $175 from $120 for the most expensive garage.

At the meeting, ACDA officials said the proposed increase would raise an estimated $1 million in 2024 and help the agency keep up with inflation, including costs for security, plowing and maintenance. It would also match hourly rates at the agency’s outdoor metered spaces.

But board members chose to hold off on approving the proposal, saying it might make more sense to make the new rates $2 an hour and avoid the need for a second increase within another year or two. They also asked ACDA staff to provide an analysis at an upcoming meeting of how the proposed increases compare to inflation indices.

Meanwhile, ACDA is in the process of a $1.3 million project to upgrade more than 1,000 street parking meters — an effort that the Anchorage Assembly approved in October.

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