Preserving the Hydroelectric Gems of the Lower Snake

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The reliable, renewable, and affordable power that federal hydropower provides is under attack. That’s because dam breaching advocates continue their quest to remove the Lower Snake River Dams, an integral part of the Columbia River System. In pushing for their breaching – at a projected cost of $2 billion – their goal is to trade a substantial source of reliable, affordable, renewable, and carbon-free power for the highly questionable environmental benefit of increased salmon returns.

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How important are the Lower Snake dams? For starters, they have the capacity to produce 3033 Megawatts of electricity, or enough power to supply all of Seattle. However, dam breaching advocates claim that removing the dams would enhance the recovery of several species of salmon listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the federal agency tasked with marketing electricity output from the dams in the Columbia system, spent $123 million in 2018 and has spent close to $17 billion since 1981 on fish recovery and habitat recovery because under the ESA a “Federal Agency shall…insure that any action authorized, or carried out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence of any endangered species…or result in the destruction, or adverse modification of habitat.”

With $17 billion spent since 1981, there’s no doubt that the cost for recovering the salmon and their habitat has been high. It’s also clear that by spending these vast sums, BPA and its ratepayers have made “continued existence” of salmon a priority. But reliable, carbon-free is a priority, too, meaning policymakers soon will have an important choice to make.

As Energy Fairness has discussed in the past, hydropower – particularly the Lower Snake dams – are the embodiment of reliable, affordable, renewable, and clean energy. And it’s an incredible bargain. Just consider that the Northwest ratepayer spends $62 million annually to operate the dams, but yields $200 million/year in clean electricity by displacing 7,317 kilotons of carbon dioxide.

The dams also play the role of a reliable renewable by allowing grid operators to almost instantaneously call upon its power generation capabilities when renewables like solar and wind can’t meet customer demand. And, with carbon mitigation a priority in states like Washington and Oregon, it’s also important to note the added transportation benefit that these dams provide. 3.5 million tons of cargo were shipped through dams’ lock systems in 2017, taking the carbon output of 135,000 semi-trucks off the road.

Breaching the Lower Snake River dams would be a mistake. It would be a mistake for reliability, since the dams play an integral role in providing reliable power when other renewable sources aren’t working. It would also be a mistake for affordability, since ratepayers receive more than a 3:1 return annually through their investment in the Lower Snake dams. The Lower Snake dams provide some of most affordable and reliable renewable power available in the marketplace today.

The facts speak clearly that policymakers have a clear choice: keep the Snake River dams working for both consumers and the environment.