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Columbia-Snake agreement plans next era of energy resources

by Diego Rivas
| February 8, 2024 12:00 AM

The recent agreement between state and federal governments and some northwest tribal nations on the Columbia-Snake river system lays a path forward to both modernize our energy system and recover threatened salmon and steelhead to abundance on the lower Snake River.  

A logical question is being asked by critics: why should we remove the Lower Snake River dams when we need all the resources we can get? It’s a valid question. As we move to shut down old and aging thermal generation, new power sources must take their place.  

It’s a wonder then why these critics don’t support the agreement. Rather than pushing for Lower Snake River dam removal now, the agreement creates a framework that allows for funding of replacement power before that decision is made. And, importantly, congressional action is required before dam removal can occur.  

A critical step outlined in the agreement is a comprehensive energy planning exercise. Analysis by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), utilities and other regional planners, will study the best ways to simultaneously meet resource adequacy in the region, decarbonize our energy system, and recover salmon and steelhead to abundance.  

This careful planning will inform the next era of resource development in the region. The agreement also provides federal investment for northwest tribes to develop 1,000 MW (megawatts) to 3,000 MW of diverse, new clean energy resources, including demand response, energy efficiency, storage, wind and solar. That’s important because protecting salmon and steelhead populations is a national responsibility, and these new investments rightfully distribute the cost of resources away from BPA customers.  

Without the agreement, BPA customers — including western Montana rural electric cooperatives — are likely to be on the hook for millions in additional costs.  

For example, BPA currently spends $500 million annually on its fish and wildlife programs. Additionally, as existing hydropower turbines in the lower Snake River dams start reaching the end of their operating life over the next decade, replacement of the turbines is anticipated eventually to cost over $1 billion. These costs are and will be paid by co-op customers unless a different approach is taken. 

Hydropower will remain a cornerstone of the region’s energy system, and it’s essential to diversify the energy mix to maintain reliability. No major changes to our power system occur without ensuring we have reliability well in hand. That is why this agreement starts with planning.  

While outside the salmon recovery commitments in this agreement, there are exciting opportunities to build on the successes of a more-unified western electricity market. This will increase the efficient and economic use of clean energy resources across the region, taking additional pressure off the federal hydropower resources.

A bigger market footprint connects abundant clean energy across the West, strengthening the entire system from expected variation in any one location. A West-wide market is a key complement to regional energy planning and new resource development and Montana utilities, regulators and agencies should be at the table to work through the details together and actualize the benefits of these opportunities.  

The region has successfully managed these transitions before, adding 10,700 megawatts of wind and solar over the past 20 years to phase out coal and other fossil fuels. 

Rather than kicking the can down the road, it is necessary to proactively plan and prepare for the next era of energy resource development that helps modernize our energy system, meets tribal treaty obligations on salmon recovery, all while improving reliability and minimizing rate impacts on customers. 

Diego Rivas is regulatory counsel for the NW Energy Coalition. He is based in Montana.

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