A new hydroelectric plant rising on the South Fork of Eagle River represents the municipality’s first small urban hydroelectric plant, a new source of renewable energy that’s expected to power as many as 1,000 homes in the area.
It also marks the culmination of a decades-long dream powered by nearly 50 years of pioneer spirit and dedication.
Eagle River’s South Fork Hydro LLC is in the process of building the hydroelectric power plant on the Janke property at Mile 4.2 Hiland Road. The company consists of Phyllis Janke and her son, Dan (who also owns South Fork Construction in Eagle River), together with Anchorage engineer Earle Ausman, a longtime friend of the Janke family.
The Janke family and Ausman first came up with the idea of harnessing the South Fork for power in the early 1960s.
“We’ve worked on it a very long time,” Phyllis Janke said.
A hefty loan from the Alaska Energy Authority — the project got approval for $2 million in March — and an historic power sales agreement with local power provider Matanuska Electric Association proved pivotal to the project’s recent progress.
But it was the just-don’t-quit attitude of this longtime South Fork family that really made things happen.
Keeping it in the family
Phyllis Janke, a gracious 77-year-old who presides over the family like a matriarch, still lives on the homestead she and her husband, Joe, carved out of the steep South Fork canyon in 1958. The Jankes raised six children and a family friend. Everybody still lives in Alaska, including more than a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
She said she hopes the hydro plant will help keep the mountainous, stream-crossed homestead intact and in the family.
“That would certainly be my goal,” said Janke, whose passions include tending a large garden that overlooks the valley below her home. “I would love to do that because all my children still live here and my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
Stable, long-term energy
The state agency that agreed to the $2 million loan says the hydroelectric plant will also provide an important new source of renewable energy.
The project earned the Alaska Energy Authority’s backing in March because it provides renewable energy for MEA as well as an opportunity for an independent power producer, said Karsten Rodvik, an Authority spokesman.
The loan was significant enough that the approval of the Authority’s Board was required. The Power Project Fund, the pool of money behind the loan, provides loans to local utilities, local governments or independent power producers for the development or upgrade of electric power facilities, including conservation, bulk fuel storage and waste energy conservation.
AEA Board Chairman Hugh Short praised the Jankes and Ausman in a press release: “I commend Phyllis, Daniel and Earle for their diligence and dedication to bringing this project on line to benefit Alaskans with stable, long-term energy.”
In an agreement that South Fork Hydro considers key, Matanuska Electric Association will distribute the power.
The Palmer-based utility provides electricity to Eagle River residents. Under a power sales agreement worked out with MEA, South Fork Hydro will sell all the project’s electricity to the utility at 7 cents per kilowatt hour. The plant is expected to produce 1 megawatt of electricity — or enough power for almost everyone who lives on the South Fork.
A big drop of electricity
Here’s how the South Fork hydro project will make electricity from the cascading waters of the South Fork of Eagle River:
A weir — a concrete wall with a sliding gate — already built at the top of the Janke property will divert water into a 30-inch, 3,500-foot-long buried pipe that will drop 380 vertical feet to a powerhouse located downstream. (See a short video of the weir here) It’s the energy accumulated in the drop that generates electricity.
The project won’t threaten fish because a 60-foot waterfall downstream blocks any salmon from making it upriver, Ausman said. It also won’t take all the water out of the creek.
The water will end up at the powerhouse, a bunker-like structure where two impulse turbines will each drive 720-rpm generators that hook into the Matanuska Electric Association line via a transformer. The water then returns to the river.
Dan Janke said he would eventually like to give tours of the plant to local schoolchildren.
The Janke family hopes revenue from the plant will help offset the municipal property taxes they pay on the 114-acre property — $10,500 this year after about $2,500 in exemptions, according to the municipal property tax database.
That’s the reality of modern life on such a big chunk of land.
But back in the day, the big struggle on the Janke homestead was electricity rather than taxation. The South Fork was a virtual wilderness, with not much more than a half-dozen homesteaders trying to make a go of it without a modern utility grid.
The original idea for some kind of hydro plant to harness the waters of the South Fork got its start all the way back in 1963.
Ausman, now president of Polarconsult Inc., said the whole thing began as a way to replace Janke’s old “one-lunger diesel — you know, pachunka pachunka pachunka — that generated all his power.” Maybe hydroelectric power could provide electricity for the Jankes, as well as other area homesteaders and a nearby campground on Eagle River.
But there was no utility to distribute the power, Ausman said. So he and Janke decided just to build a small plant for the Jankes. Ausman actually went out out and bought a used hydroplant that had been used on a tributary of the Susitna River for the Valdez Creek mine.
“I had to hock my guns so I could get enough money to pay for it,” he said.
The idea fizzled. After a while, MEA came into the area with power. Ausman resold the plant he bought.
Joe Janke died in 1993, but the idea for a hydro plant lived on. Joe’s son, Dan, took the reins along with Ausman.
The two proposed a more ambitious South Fork hydro project in the 1990s, Ausman said. This time, the project foundered because of the inability to get a power sales agreement and trouble with borrowing. The project didn’t gather momentum again for another decade.
In 2009, Polarconsult and South Fork Hydro LLC received approval for more than $2 million in grants and loans from the state. But they didn’t agree with the terms of the grant, and returned $1 million of the grant money, Ausman said. Polarconsult and the Jankes reapplied to the Alaska Energy Authority in 2010.
Permitting also took a long time. Ausman and the Jankes said the project has all the permits it needs, including approval from the state Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The municipality had never permitted a hydroelectric project like this one before, Phyllis Janke said. It took more than a year to address municipal permitting requirements alone, she said.
The $2,070,692 loan to finish the project extends over a 30-year period at a fixed interest rate of 5.12 percent. The total project cost is $4,942,982.
The loan itself isn’t in the bank yet, but the Jankes and Ausman are hoping that will change in June.
Equipment and supplies needed to finish the project — including pipes, turbines and special asynchronous generators required by MEA — are on order. The equipment probably won’t arrive until October, Phyllis Janke said.
The plant could start making electricity by the end of this year, she said, but only if everything goes perfectly.
So how would Joe Janke feel to know the project looked like it was finally going to happen?
Phyllis Janke said her husband was an idea guy, but not always a follow-through guy. It was Dan and Earle who had the gumption to stick with the family hydro plant despite all the setbacks after Joe died.
“He’d be thrilled,” she said. “I know he would.”
Zaz Hollander is a freelance writer who lives in the Mat-Su. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org