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Groups Raise Reliability, Cost And Other Concerns In Response To Idea Of Breaching Northwest Dams

July 20, 2022

by Paul Ciampoli
APPA News Director
July 20, 2022

The idea of breaching the Lower River Snake Dams (LSRDs) in Eastern Washington State fails to take into account a number of potential negative impacts that could result from such a move including an increase in electricity costs for consumers and removing a key pillar of reliable power supply for the region, the American Public Power Association (APPA) and regional public power groups said.

In June, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced the release of an independent draft report intended to help inform the recommendations of their Joint Federal-State Process regarding the Lower Snake River Dams and salmon recovery in the Pacific Northwest. 

The draft report notes that the potential for improvements to West Coast salmon populations is one of the main factors prompting interest in breaching the LSRDs. The deadline for comments on the draft report was July 11, 2022.

Among the groups that weighed in on the draft report was the Oregon Municipal Electric Utilities Association (OMEU).

The draft report assumes the LSRDs will be less important in the future, OMEU said. “However, with 100% clean energy mandates in Oregon and Washington this is clearly untrue. With baseload resources being replaced by massive amounts of intermittent generation, the LSRDs’ ability to provide power — on demand — will become increasingly important for reliable grid operations and public safety, especially during extreme weather conditions,” OMEU argued.

It pointed out that during the heat dome events of last summer, the LSRDs provided much-needed energy, balancing and contingency reserves. “Without those four dams, powering through the heat wave could have been much more expensive and operationally challenging,” OMEU said.

For consumer-owned utility ratepayers, losing the LSRDs could increase consumer electricity rates by 25% or more, OMEU said. “Replacing the generating capabilities of the LSRDs, alone, would cost $15 billion in a zero-carbon future. This type of financial hardship threatens to irreparably harm the communities we serve, particularly our low income and vulnerable customers.”

APPA, which supports the comments submitted by the Washington Public Utility Districts Association (WPUDA) and OMEU, noted that many of APPA’s members buy power produced by the LSRDs, which are part of the broader Columbia River Power System, or own and operate their own hydropower projects.

Making full use of the nation’s hydropower resource is key to ensuring that the nation’s — and the Pacific Northwest’s — grid remains reliable and resilient, and that utilities can meet emission reduction goals, APPA said.

“It is difficult to overstate how critical it is to maintain the LRSDs as the region — and the nation — seeks to lower emissions while maintaining electric reliability and affordability over the long-term,” APPA said in its comments. “Moreover, recent extreme weather events have demonstrated that the LSRDs are an irreplaceable resource not just in the future but right now — both in terms of energy, capacity, and other grid services key to maintaining reliable electricity.”

Public power utilities are committed to scientific, cost-effective mitigation for the impacts of the federal hydropower system, APPA noted. It said that costs related to fish and wildlife mitigation, including the cost of lost power generation, comprise a quarter or more of the Bonneville Power Administration’s power rates.

“The LSRDs feature state-of-the-art fish passage technology that greatly improves in-river fish survival, achieving spring juvenile survival at 96 percent and summer migrating fish survival at 93 percent. Removal of the LSRDs is not a clear path to recovery of endangered species or overall abundance of salmon. More attention is needed to the threats of ocean conditions, avian predation, and over-fishing,” APPA said.

Removal of the LSRDs “may prove to be a tipping point, nudging the Northwest system into acute scarcity of electric supply. The Federal hydropower system, and particularly the LSRDs, are in a critical position to maintain grid reliability and prevent blackouts in the West.”

Moreover, no existing alternative technologies can provide the same combination of low cost, reliable, and flexible attributes, and it is far from clear that dam removal will result in meaningful fish recovery commensurate with costs, APPA added.

WPUDA noted that the draft states that three studies found the energy generated by the LSRD could be replaced by a clean energy portfolio. “It is important that the report emphasize that these studies do not demonstrate that an alternative clean energy portfolio can achieve the other electric system services provided by the LSRDs: peaking capacity, clean energy, grid stability, ancillary and grid services, transmission voltage support and low regional energy rates,” WPUDA said.

The draft report indicates the cost of dam breaching to be $10-$27 billion, WPUDA noted. “Given the stated purpose is salmon recovery, WPUDA believes it is worth asking whether this is the best use of this enormous sum of dollars. And if so, could this money be spent in alternative ways that better support salmon abundance (e.g., stream bank restoration, culvert replacement, enhanced salmon migration support)?”

Northwest RiverPartners, which serves not-for-profit, community-owned electric utilities in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming, said that “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 longer than allowed under Washington’s clean energy laws to avoid blackouts,” Northwest RiverPartners said.

Following the public input period, tribal consultation, and other means of engagement, the report will be updated and released in final form. The senator and governor will then make their recommendations.