A Different Kind of Battleground State – The future of hydroelectricity will be determined in the Pacific Northwest

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Energy Fairness is pleased to present the following op-ed concerning the attacks on the Northwest Hydropower System from Kurt Miller, Executive Director of Northwest River Partners. Northwest River Partners’ mission is to lead the charge for the Northwest to realize its clean energy potential using hydroelectricity as the cornerstone.

In Washington state, we are incredibly blessed. We are blessed with beautiful surroundings, fertile land, clean air, and lots of rainy days.

The rainy-day piece may not sound like a blessing, but it is if you’re a user of electricity. Washington state gets close to 60% of its electricity from hydropower, and as a result, it has some of the lowest electric bills in the nation. 

This ample resource also allowed the state to pass legislation for 100% clean energy in the state by 2045. 

You may be surprised to learn, then, that Washington state is THE battleground state for the future of hydroelectricity. 

The lines have been drawn around the four lower Snake River dams (LSRD) in eastern Washington, but there is a much larger ideological issue at play behind the scenes—the role of hydroelectricity in our clean and equitable energy future. 

While the LSRD have always been contentious, data show that the number of returning adult salmon to the Snake River has been on a significant overall uptrend since the first LSRD was built in 1961. Huge investments in modernized fish passage systems have resulted in very high survival rates for both juvenile and adult salmon. 

That said, dams do change river ecosystems and affect fish in the river. But that statement could be said not just for the LSRD, but for any dam at any place where there are salmon or other fish that people are concerned about. 

It is inevitable if the LSRD are breached that people will use their breaching as a basis to call for the removal of other significant dams. (Calls for more extensive dam breaching have already been made). 

The consequences of this path could be particularly devastating to the fight against the climate crisis and for a fair and inclusive energy future. 

As an example, at the end of February, a long-awaited federal Draft Environmental Impact Statement was issued for the Columbia River Power System. In the most extensive study ever completed about dams in the Columbia River Basin, the results showed that removing the LSRD would:

  • double the likelihood of region-wide blackouts if the dams output is not replaced.
  • potentially increase carbon production from Pacific Northwest power plants by 10% or 3 million metric tons a year (assuming a natural gas generation replacement portfolio).
  • increase power production costs by as much as $1 billion a year (assuming a zero-carbon generation replacement portfolio), resulting in a residential rate increase of 25%.
  • reduce the region’s ability to add intermittent renewables like solar and wind. (The dams act like a giant clean battery, helping to fill in the moment-to-moment gaps left by wind and sunshine.)  

These are just the electricity-related implications, and don’t include the loss of low-carbon barging or irrigation made possible by the dams, which could also amount to billions of dollars and thousands of lost jobs for agricultural workers. 

Washington state already has an affordable housing shortage and a full-blown homelessness crisis. Our communities – especially our disadvantaged communities – simply cannot afford regional blackouts and spiking energy prices. 

Mike Gonzalez of Franklin Public Utility District in Pasco, Washington shared at recent press conference that his utility sees this issue as one of social justice. Roughly 70% of Franklin PUD’s customers identify as Latino/Latina and 30% speak English as a second language. They would be particularly hard hit by high electricity prices and the loss of agricultural work made possible by irrigation from the dams. 

Not surprisingly, while the Draft Environmental Impact Statement found that breaching the dams may improve fish survival, it also found that the cost to societal goals would far outweigh that potential benefit. 

We are hoping that this expansive report ends the debate about the value of hydroelectricity in Washington state and in Washington DC. 

Good public policy dictates that we focus on ways to help salmon that don’t involve the destruction of critical infrastructure. My organization is partnering with stakeholders across the region for this very purpose, and we hope others will follow our lead.