May 7, 2018
A study commissioned by the Northwest Energy Coalition concludes that energy from four lower Snake River dams can be replaced with a combination of solar, wind, energy efficiency and demand response.
And, the Coalition says, these new energy sources would still provide reliable power to the Northwest and come with only small increases in ratepayer costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
Meanwhile, a consultant for Northwest RiverPartners who looked at the study questioned its affordability and reliability findings.
The Coalition, which represents about 100 organizations seeking clean energy solutions to restoring salmon, hired independent consultants Energy Strategies to find out if reliable and affordable clean energy options could replace the power now generated by the four dams. At an April 4 news conference, Fred Heutte, the Coalition's senior policy associate, said the company found no new natural gas plants are necessary, although some of the energy replaced if dams were removed would likely come from existing gas or other carbon-emitting energy sources.
The study outlined several possible scenarios for replacing the dams, including the construction of new gas-fired power plants. But at its news conference, the Coalition focused on a "balanced-plus" portfolio that adds 1250 MW of new wind power, 250 MW of new solar, 160 aMW of energy efficiency and 500 MW of demand response--energy saved by compensating users who stop using energy when it's most needed.
The balanced-plus option would add about 360,275 tons of carbon to the environment--an increase of about 1 percent--if greenhouse gas policies remain as they are today. And it would cost an estimated $464 million a year, requiring increased revenues of 3 percent beginning in 2026. NWEC said that's an average of $1.28 more per month for residential customers.
Heutte said the four dams on the lower Snake River have been identified as a major threat to salmon. Failing to recover the fish hurts not only the environment, but also the fishing and tourism industries, American Indian tribes, and other species in the ecosystem, including orcas.
The Coalition's presentation noted that the Northwest Power and Conservation Council has set a goal of 2 to 4 percent of sustained returns for salmon survival, and 4- to 6-percent returns to move toward recovery. "In the last 20 years, return rates for wild Snake River salmon have largely hovered between 0.5 and 1 percent--far below what's required for wild salmon to survive and thrive into the future."
Heutte said removing the dams--which provide about 4 percent of the region's hydro power--would speed up river flows and cool water temperatures, contributing to higher survival rates for both juveniles and returning adults.
Sean O'Leary, the Coalition's communications director, said the Coalition looked into removing the dams because federal agencies will be examining the possibility in a court-ordered environmental impact statement on operating 14 dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. But while removing the four dams could be key to restoring declining salmon populations, "We don't have any interest in replacing any other dams," he said. "We support clean energy, including clean energy from hydro."
Jim Litchfield, a consultant for Northwest RiverPartners, said it's not surprising that consultants were able to come up with a mix of other energy resources to replace the four dams. "That's what power planners do." A former power planning director of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, Litchfield reviewed the study and said he wouldn't call an increase in costs that ranges from about $400 million to $1.2 billion affordable, especially when all of the costs fall on BPA at a time when it's struggling to remain viable.
He also questioned the reliability findings, which he said aren't the same conclusions as those reached in a recent NWPCC analysis showing that the region needs about 1,200 MW of new resources before 2023 in order to replace energy generated by coal plants that are going off line. "These new resources are needed to replace the output of coal plants that are going to be shut down," Litchfield wrote in an email. "If the dams were also removed, that would only make the system reliability even worse."
In an interview, Litchfield said the study credibly explores options for rebalancing the region's energy needs if it suddenly lost the 3,000 MW of capacity, or 1,000 aMW of energy, from the four lower Snake River dams.
"But it doesn't really answer the question of, 'Should we take the Snake River dams out?' There are a lot of other factors. They don't just provide power, but also navigation, irrigation, recreation; and they provide power system attributes you don't get from other resources," he said.
The study also ignores other impacts of dam removal--such as the increase in carbon emissions if farmers transport wheat by rail or truck instead of barges, or the overall change in carbon emissions throughout the West, where much of the hydropower is currently sold, and not just the four Northwestern states examined.
Litchfield added that there is no evidence in the study or anywhere else that removing the dams would recover four of the 13 ESA-listed stocks that spawn in the Snake River basin.
"The economic analysis is not very honest, in that it tries to spread it to everybody," he said. "But all of those costs land on Bonneville; they don't land on anybody else." The study also does not look at the cost of removing the dams, although O'Leary said previous examinations have shown that it costs more in capital expenditures to maintain the dams than to remove them.
O'Leary, however, also noted that the Coalition studied but rejected the higher-cost scenarios, and added that the decision to view costs across all Northwest households is the same methodology used by the NWPCC.
Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, said in a news release that costs of replacing the dams may drop even more, due to the plunging cost of renewables and the ability to fine-tune the energy resources identified in the study. In addition, he said, the dams are aging, and the cost of replacing worn-out turbines, for example, is predicted to cost at least $1.5 billion.
He said scientists have identified the removal of the lower Snake River dams as the most effective, and likely the only way, to protect endangered wild salmon and steelhead from extinction. "This Power Replacement Study explodes the myth that we can't have both wild salmon and clean energy. Instead it shows that we can remove these four deadly dams, restore one of our nation's great salmon rivers and improve the Northwest's energy system," he said.
Ben Kujala, NWPCC's current director of power planning, said he views the study as a "conversation starter." The Council provided a lot of data for the study--just as it does for other studies--but has not vetted its findings, he said. "If you really look into it, it's not one-sided. There are things people who are on either side can look at and use as part of their argument ... Is this comprehensive? Probably not, but I think it adds something," he said. "It was a good and very interesting study."
Kujala added that it's not easy to come up with a reliable, clean energy option for replacing a significant amount of hydropower. "Honestly, with our existing system today, if you remove something like the lower Snake River dams, you automatically end up emitting more carbon," he said. "It's just a natural consequence."
As for the costs, he said, "I think there are many, many ways to run the power system, if you take money off the table." -K.C. Mehaffey<mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>