OPINION: Why you should give a darn about these dams
The region's hydropower generation is its superpower.
Hydropower represents 40% of Oregon's electric generation and almost 90% of the Northwest's renewable energy. As a result, the Pacific Northwest boasts the lowest-carbon electric grid in the U.S.A., the least costly renewable energy in the nation, and the lowest energy burden for low-income customers in the country.
The lower Snake River dams are an important part of this equation. These four hydroelectric dams are located in Eastern Washington, but they provide millions of megawatt-hours of affordable, reliable, zero-carbon electricity to the entire Pacific Northwest.
These dams play a key role in filling in the gaps for wind and solar power, provide much needed irrigation for farmers, and support Washington state's trade economy by transporting 10% of America's wheat to port. They have been upgraded with the most advanced fish passage systems in the world, and they are essential in helping us meet our emissions reduction goals as our state and country work to confront the impacts of climate change.
Despite these facts, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state initiated a process to see if the services provided by the dams can be replaced due to concerns over low salmon returns.
The findings of the report were eye-opening.
Estimates to replace the benefits the dams provide Northwest residents ranged from $10 billion to $27 billion, and the report acknowledges it left some significant things out. A new study from the Bonneville Power Administration indicates replacing the reliable power from the dams could cost up to $77 billion if costly new long-distance transmission lines need to be built.
For utilities that get nearly 100% of their electricity from BPA, like Columbia River People's Utility District, our customer rates could jump by as much as 65%, according to that study.
Our already-fragile grid is facing unique challenges and threats. Removing the lower Snake River dams would not only create even greater challenges, but their loss would harm our efforts to keep the power on when we most need it.
Additionally, losing the lower Snake River dams makes it virtually certain that grid operators will be forced to continue using coal or natural gas generation for years — and perhaps decades — longer than allowed under Oregon's clean energy law to avoid blackouts.
Despite these hugely negative impacts to the price of power, undermining reliability, and moving us away from meeting our climate objectives, activists still want to remove the lower Snake River dams. While the draft report by Sen. Murray and Gov. Inslee did not call for removal, they will be under tremendous pressure to take that position in the coming weeks and months.
That is why we are encouraging our customers to make their voices heard. No matter your opinion, we encourage you to provide your comments to Sen. Murray, Gov. Inslee, and your congressperson directly. This link makes it easy: https://secure.everyaction.com/QmoPXvGNUUuD04QB2JiiZQ2
You can sign up to learn more at www.nwriverpartners.org.
Michael J. Sykes is general manager of the Columbia River People's Utility District.
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