Letters from the West

Northwest could tear down 4 Snake dams & still have cheap, reliable power, says study

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Federal agencies can breach four Snake River dams to help salmon and still have a more reliable energy system with lower costs – if the dams are replaced with changes in consumer behavior and more renewable energy, a new study concludes.

The study was commissioned by the NW Energy Coalition, an advocacy group for energy efficiency, renewable energy and low-income energy users, and conducted by Energy Strategies, a Utah-based energy consulting firm. It used the Bonneville Power Administration’s own numbers to determine that the changes could save BPA money and make its system more reliable for its customers. The BPA markets $3 billion worth of electric power for use by 10 million people across the Pacific Northwest.

The four dams in question sit along the lower Snake in Washington state. Fisheries biologists from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the National Marine Fisheries Services say endangered Snake River salmon would have a better chance of survival if the dams were removed. The question has been whether the region’s power grid could still meet demand during peak times and still effectively back up solar and wind plants without the four dams.

“The study shows we can replace lower Snake River hydro with a range of clean energy resources, enhance the reliability of the Northwest power system, and give Snake River salmon a fighting chance to recover to sustainable levels even as climate change puts a lot more pressure on our river system and the Pacific Ocean,” said Bill Bradbury, an Oregon resident and former chair of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

BPA sells power from 29 federal dams, including Anderson Ranch on the Boise River, and a nuclear power plant. Its 15,000 miles of transmission lines help power the $820 billion economy across Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana.

The agency accounts for 16 percent of Idaho’s annual power load. BPA sells electricity here to 28 rural electric cooperatives and municipal utilities – Weiser and Idaho Falls among them – who serve a combined 130,000 customers.

The Lower Snake River Dams Replacement study proposes a mix of solar and wind power, and programs that encourage customers to cut their energy use at high-demand times. Its authors say the energy mix would have only minor effects on greenhouse gas emissions and would not require any new natural gas plants. The cost of replacing the power from the dams would amount to only a few cents a day for average residential customers.

The report comes on the heels of a Monday decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a federal judge’s order that BPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must spill more water over eight Snake and Columbia dams. U.S. District Judge Michael Simon called for the higher, costlier requirements between April and mid-June to help young salmon migrate out of the river system.

Critics of the ruling include U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, who co-sponsored a bill that would reverse Simon’s ruling. “Congress must fight this attack on Idaho’s economy and protect the multiple-use river system that American taxpayers built over 80 years,” Labrador said in a Tuesday news release.

Labrador, who is running for governor, also objects to removing the dams. Also using numbers from BPA, he said breaching would take more than 3,000 megawatts off the grid, costing up to $372 million a year. “It would take two nuclear, three coal-fired or six gas-fired power plants to replace the average annual power produced at the four dams, enough energy to power 1.8 million homes,” his news release claims, countering the NW Energy study.



The region has been in an energy surplus for years. That’s expected to continue for the next decade, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which advises BPA. The surplus and the rapidly changing electricity market prompted BPA to announce in January a five-year plan to stay competitive.

“We at BPA – in conjunction with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation – are running a regional Columbia River System Operations EIS process that will evaluate a range of alternatives for long-term operations of the Columbia River System. The National Environmental Policy Act requires a hard look at different potential alternatives – an intellectually honest review with facts and solid analysis,” BPA Administrator Elliott Mainzer said. 

“In updating the public on the status of this process, we noted that one of the alternatives to be examined includes breaching the four lower Snake River dams. By taking a hard look at the alternatives and tradeoffs in this process through the CRSO, we will enable well-informed decision making on these issues of critical importance to the region.”

BPA gets its financing through a revolving line of credit from the U.S. Treasury, capped at $7.7 billion. At the end of 2017, BPA had $5 billion in debt, leaving only $2.7 billion. It projects this financing will run out by 2023 if no changes are made.

The study did not take into account that financial situation, said the Idaho Conservation League’s Ben Otto, who is also the president of the NW Energy Coalition. But that doesn’t hurt its conclusions, he said: “When BPA conducts this review, I suspect they will find what our study found – that the relative value of the dams is quite low.”

Tony Jones is an economist with Boise-based Rocky Mountain Econometrics. As conservation reduces BPA’s demand, he said, many of its current systems have more redundancies than its customers want or need. They will flee BPA if their costs remain higher than the market average.

Of BPA’s $300 million fish and wildlife budget, the four dams account for $108 million, Jones said.

“It’s my position BPA is a necessary part of the Northwest,” Jones said. “At the same time, there are a handful of components on their system that can drag them into bankruptcy, and the four lower Snake dams are a prime example.”

This report has been updated to clarify Mainzer's comments on researching BPA's future.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker

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