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Breaching hydropower dams carries collateral damage

by Daily Inter Lake
| February 4, 2024 12:00 AM

Electric cooperatives across the Pacific Northwest have sounded the alarm in recent weeks about the consequences facing ratepayers if four Lower Snake River dams are breached.

Collectively, the federal dams in eastern Washington have the capacity to churn out about 3,000 megawatts of reliable, clean hydropower that is eventually fed into co-ops serving homes from California, Oregon and Washington to Utah, Wyoming and Montana. 

In Montana, co-ops receive nearly 330 megawatts from Columbia River Basin hydropower dams, which is enough to light up more than 100,000 households in the state.

In December, the Biden administration agreed to terms with Oregon, Washington and four tribes that suggested removal of the Lower Snake River dams as a key way to help restore endangered salmon in the river system and address tribal treaty rights. Alternative green energy projects would be brought on line to replace the dams’ power production.

It’s important to note that removal of the dams is not imminent nor is it explicitly mandated in the agreement. Any such decision would require an act of Congress and could not be authorized by the White House alone. Sen. Steve Daines notes that there is no broad congressional support to remove federal dams on the Columbia River.

Nonetheless, energy associations like Flathead Electric Cooperative are on edge about any plans that suggest a reduction to the supply of reliable hydroelectricity, which they warn would cause significant rate increases for its members. According to Flathead Electric, hikes of up to 50% are possible.

“This is a big threat to the electricity you all now enjoy, some of the cheapest in the country. It’s a big deal,” Mark Johnson, general manager of Flathead Electric Cooperative, told local business leaders at an Evergreen Chamber of Commerce luncheon last month.

Salmon advocacy groups dispute the rate hike projection as much lower, around 2-4%, according to Save Our Wild Salmon.

What’s not in dispute, however, is that hydropower is the most reliable renewable, carbon-free energy on the market. Wind and solar are emerging solutions, but aren’t capable today of meeting demands if hydropower is diminished in the Bonneville Power Administration portfolio. 

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee agrees that the electricity produced by the dams must be replaced before they are breached.

“Replacing the energy production of the [dams] would take time, funding, planning and collaboration across all stakeholders to ensure that the region’s future clean energy goals are met, the region maintains a reliable system, and customers, especially the most vulnerable, are not overly burdened by increased electricity rates,” a 2022 report issued by Inslee’s office stated.

What’s more, wind and solar have their own incidental effects on the environment and wildlife that this plan seeks to protect. Bird mortality within wind farms is well documented, while solar infrastructure requires large swaths of land and panels that are made with raw materials. There is no perfect solution to clean energy.

None of this is to diminish the importance of endangered salmon to tribal heritage and the area’s economy. Efforts to protect and revitalize the species should continue earnestly.

But removing carbon-free hydropower dams without an equivalent replacement as load growth surges would serve up its own collateral damage to wildlife, farmers and Pacific Northwest ratepayers.

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