The following is a contributed article by Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, that serves nonprofit electric utilities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming.
It may surprise you to learn that hydropower is now viewed by many Pacific Northwest residents in the same light as coal and natural gas. A regional survey showed this shocking result, despite the region's remarkable hydropower resources on the Columbia River and its tributaries.
This perception is especially surprising in light of the incredible success story of hydropower in the Pacific Northwest. The region has the least carbon-intensive electric service territory in the nation and the most affordable renewable power in the nation.
In other parts of the country, utilities are fighting to import more hydroelectricity from Canada to help reach their clean energy goals in an affordable way. However, in the Pacific Northwest, the average resident — especially younger adults — would like to see less of their energy coming from hydropower, despite their strong desire to fight climate change.
As a result, there are almost-daily calls in the media to tear down dams that provide great benefits to society.
How did we get here?
The continued debate over hydropower dams is related to their potential effect on salmon.
To address those concerns, billions of dollars have been invested in fish habitat improvements and to upgrade dams with advanced fish passage systems. The result has been a significant jump in juvenile salmon survival.
The challenge is in the ocean, where some salmon species spend 75% of their lives. So, despite the in-river survival improvements, Columbia and Snake River salmon — like most salmon populations along the West Coast — are not returning from the ocean in healthy numbers.
Is it the dams' fault?
Columbia River Basin salmon populations were nearly decimated by commercial overfishing in the mid-to-late 1800s, and have never recovered. This was well before the first federal dam was completed in 1938.
In terms of the hydroelectric system's role in helping or hampering salmon recovery, it's fair to say that the science on this topic is very mixed. The Columbia River Basin isn't a good laboratory, because river conditions are constantly changing.
The focus on the river system may be poorly placed. Notably, the International Panel on Climate Change believes that ocean-warming and acidification caused by increased carbon levels and climate change is probably the biggest threat to all marine fish.
NOAA researcher Lisa Crozier has stated that scientists around the world are seeing "a near synchronous decline" of critical salmon populations across the globe, likely due to climate change.
Scientific uncertainties have divided those who seek a better environmental outcome for the Northwest. For certain groups, hydropower's renewable aspect is often eclipsed by the contention that it may hamper salmon recovery efforts.
Accordingly, we have seen some of the largest environmental groups in the nation weigh in against the lower Snake River dams in eastern Washington. Advocacy groups with combined annual revenues of almost $500 million submitted comments in favor of breaching the dams, bringing heaps of political clout to bear with elected officials.
But, from a climate change and societal perspective, those dams are worth fighting for. They produce enough annual electricity — 1,100 average MW — to fully power Seattle. They can also provide upwards of 2,500 MW of peaking capacity during the winter months.
Their fast-acting capabilities are relied upon by the federal Bonneville Power Administration to help integrate thousands of megawatts of intermittent renewables, like wind and solar power within BPA's significant footprint. Bonneville credits the dams as some of the most cost-effective generating resources in its portfolio.
Federal agencies recently estimated that it would cost regional customers almost $800 million per year to replace the full capabilities of the lower Snake River dams with other renewable energy sources backed up by grid-scale batteries. That cost would result in a 25% increase in the electric bills of millions of Northwest residents — something the region and its most vulnerable communities cannot afford.
We routinely hear from anti-dam groups that the successful removal of the Elwha River dams and Condit Dam on the White Salmon River are proof that removing the lower Snake River dams would be good for salmon. However, neither of the former dams had fish passage facilities, and they served very little societal benefit.
It's an apples to oranges comparison, but if the lower Snake River dams are breached, it will certainly be used as justification for other breaching efforts across the nation. By eliminating the best energy storage source in the nation — carbon-free hydropower — we will be fighting climate change with our hands tied behind our backs.
A challenge on every front
A new threat to the hydropower system has recently emerged — in the form of river temperature management —that may provide Oregon and Washington state with control over the federal Columbia River System.
This development is important because Oregon's Governor, Kate Brown, has called for the breaching of the lower Snake River dams. Washington's Governor Jay Inslee is said to be sympathetic to that view.
Concerningly, in an attempt to help salmon, Oregon and Washington established river temperature limits that are significantly below the summertime river temperatures entering into their respective state borders. That means that the states' water quality standards couldn't be met, even if all the downstream dams within Washington and Oregon were removed.
This unattainable criterion opens the door for states to require very costly, unproven measures that could greatly reduce the region's hydroelectric capabilities and increase its operational costs.
It feels like the hydroelectric system is being set up to fail.
But if we're serious about addressing climate change and reaching our clean energy goals in a socially equitable way, hydropower must be considered a crucial part of the solution.