By Wendy Gerlitz
July 29, 2016
Some would paint a bleak picture of the region's energy future, one in which we choose between ample electricity and wild salmon survival. But we need not choose. We can take the actions necessary to restore healthy wild salmon — potentially even removing the lower Snake River dams — while keeping electricity bills low in a growing clean energy economy.
The Northwest's power grid is rapidly evolving to incorporate diverse renewable energy sources and ever-greater energy efficiency savings. Existing wind, solar and other non-hydro renewables and energy efficiency in Oregon already dwarf the annual power contribution of four aging and expensive dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state.
Across the region, almost 1,500 more average megawatts of new renewables are approved for development or in the permitting process. These resources will only continue to expand as rapidly falling prices add many more home-sited and large-scale solar installations into the mix.
Bill-reducing energy efficiency achieved in the Northwest since 1978 is now saving nearly six times as these four dams produce in a year — more than 5,800 average megawatt (aMW) versus around 1,000 aMW in good years — and additional efficiency is expected to meet virtually all increased electricity demand for the next 20 years.
We need honest and thorough analyses of the power system implications of salmon restoration options. Consideration of lower Snake River dam removal, for example, begins with understanding their variable power output. The dams' production peaks during the spring snowmelt when the power is least needed. They contribute less during high heating season and almost nothing during cooling seasons when river flows are much lower.
The four dams are used to adjust minute-by-minute power production to meet immediate demand, but it's a small, inadequately quantified role in the overall regional grid; the region has other resources to provide this service and will have more clean energy resources to do so going forward.
Cost estimates for replacing the four dams' power services must reflect the savings from avoided dam maintenance and expected major rehabilitation projects and set any net costs within a systemwide context. The NW Energy Coalition analyzed with a mixture of new solar and increasingly green grid purchases, finding that average residential utility customers would see their monthly bill rise by around $1 per month.
Climate change is deepening the hydrosystem's threat to wild salmon survival. Last summer, 99 percent of adult sockeye returning to Idaho perished due to record-high temperatures in the reservoirs behind the Columbia and lower Snake river dams.
In its latest rejection of federal agencies' salmon recovery plan (biological opinion), the U.S. District Court stresses the imperative of substantially changing dam operations to avoid losing Columbia Basin wild salmon and steelhead forever.
I am confident that an open and thorough process that considers all viable options to restore wild salmon — as the court has ordered — will conclude that we can save our wild salmon populations without putting the power system or electricity consumers at risk.