The Bonneville Power Administration turns 75 this year.
It’s an influential though little-known agency that markets power from 31 federal hydropower dams on the Columbia-Snake River system.
Created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, when the Bonneville Dam started generating electricity, BPA ensures that all Northwest residents benefit from hydroelectric generation through lower electric bills, said Steve Wright, BPA’s administrator.
“The hydro system in the Northwest is this invaluable treasure. It’s the natural endowment that the Northwest was given,” Wright said. “When you chose to live here in the Northwest, you are granted this legacy.”
As early as the Lewis and Clark expedition, Euro-Americans pondered ways to tap the power of the river system, said Wright, who was the keynote speaker Monday at the Lake Roosevelt Forum, an annual event that brings together scientists, citizens and policymakers to discuss resource issues in the upper Columbia River basin.
Big rivers flowing through steep canyons made dam development possible.
During the Depression, the construction of Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams – the first large projects on the Columbia – raised the standard of living for Northwest residents by making electricity affordable for average households. At the time, there was plenty of skepticism about the magnitude of the projects, given the thinly populated region they served, Wright said.
Grand Coulee, finished in 1941, can generate up to 6,000 megawatts of electricity. “Power for Jackrabbits?” was the title of a critical Reader’s Digest piece in the mid-1930s.
The skepticism changed during World War II, when factories and shipyards needed cheap and abundant electricity. About 40 percent of the aluminum for the U.S. Air Force fleet was produced in the Northwest.
Wright said the hydro dams continue to drive economic development, but now they attract high-tech development such as server farms and companies that make components for solar panels and computers.
About 60 percent of the Northwest’s electricity comes from hydropower. The dams provide more emission-free, renewable energy than any other electricity provider in the nation, Wright said. The output is equivalent to the electricity from 15 coal-fired plants. And it comes at a cost that’s a fraction of electric bills in other parts of the country, he said.
But the region is still paying for the resource damage caused by the dams, which flooded ancient tribal lands and destroyed important fisheries, Wright noted.
Northwest consumers often ask Wright if the dams can be upgraded to produce more electricity. The short answer is no. The dams are already highly efficient, capturing more than 90 percent of the water’s energy and converting it into electricity, he said. Upgrades at the dams produce only incremental gains in output.
With a growing electric load in the Northwest, the focus is now on conservation as the low-cost alternate to building new electricity generation, Wright said.
The Lake Roosevelt Forum continues today at the Davenport Hotel.