A coalition of utilities, river ports and farm organizations has embarked on a three-year, $3 million effort to improve Northwest residents’ perception of dams.
The “Clean Hydro” campaign kicked off this spring with TV spots in Seattle and Portland. The 30-second commercials feature scenic shots of water cascading over dam spillways and smiling kids and families enjoying electricity.
Hydropower has been the backbone of the Northwest power supply since the 1930s. Last year, dams generated nearly half of the electricity consumed in the region, carbon-free and at a wholesale cost of roughly 3 cents per kilowatt – a rate the rest of America envies.
This begs the question: Don’t we already love our dams?
Generally speaking, yes, said Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, which is spearheading the campaign. But in recent surveys, the organization has seen some “slippage” in support for and knowledge of dams, she said.
Northwest RiverPartners formed in 2005 to represent utilities, industry and electric ratepayers’ interests in federal litigation over managing Columbia and Snake river dams to improve conditions for migrating salmon and steelhead. The nonprofit alliance is also a vocal opponent of breaching the four Lower Snake River dams, which has been hotly debated for years.
That debate will reopen this fall, with federal agencies expected to release another plan this month for operation of the Columbia-Snake hydropower system. The plan is likely to face new challenges in federal court by groups who say it doesn’t do enough to ensure salmon survival.
While the Snake River dams are part of the discussion, Flores said the Clean Hydro campaign was triggered by broader issues.
For the past eight years, the organization has conducted polls to evaluate public attitudes toward dams. In general, Northwest residents remain highly supportive of hydropower, Flores said – 47 percent named dams as the “most practical” source of electric power for the region, according to a survey of 1,200 Washington, Oregon and Idaho residents. Wind power was second, named by 19 percent of respondents.
In the past few years, though, the results indicated some erosion in public support for dams, said Flores, who declined to give specific numbers. “That captured our attention,” she said.
The polling indicated that residents of metro areas in Western Washington and Oregon were less supportive of dams than their eastside counterparts. Younger residents and people who had recently moved to the Northwest were not as familiar with dams, including their roles beyond power production, such as water storage, flood control and river navigation.
“Our demographics are changing,” Flores said. “That’s why we felt we needed to get out there and do some basic public education.”
Over the past 15 years, much of the public discussion of hydropower has focused on salmon passage over the dams, said Tom Karier, the Eastern Washington representative for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, which is not a contributor to the Clean Hydro campaign.
“There’s maybe been less focus on the power generation of the system, which still produces a significant amount of the electricity used in the Northwest,” Karier said.
Hydro is a valuable piece of the region’s power supply because it can quickly be ramped up and down to accommodate fluctuating demand for electricity, he said.
Diminished support for hydropower may indicate that consumers are more – not less – educated about dams and their impacts, said Sam Mace, Inland Northwest director for Save Our Wild Salmon, which favors breaching the Lower Snake dams.
“It’s not surprising to me that the public is more willing to ask the question of which dams are beneficial to society and which are high-cost for low value,” she said.
Dams vital to agriculture
Avista Utilities, Inland Power & Light and the Washington Potato Commission are among contributors to the Clean Hydro campaign.
Inland Power, which serves rural customers outside of Spokane, gets about 87 percent of its electricity from hydropower, “yet, we don’t feel that consumers fully appreciate the multiple benefits … including its low-cost, carbon-free energy,” CEO Chad Jensen said in a statement.
Most people flip on their lights, plug in their cellphones and switch on furnaces without thinking about where their electricity comes from, said Chris Voigt, the potato commission’s executive director.
In addition to powering households, dams play a vital role in Washington agriculture, storing water for irrigation and providing cheap electricity for irrigation pumps and potato-storage warehouses, he said. Dams also allow wind-generation to be incorporated into the region’s power system, providing backup energy when the wind isn’t blowing, Voigt said.
The Clean Hydro campaign is showing results, according to Flores. Since the TV ads wrapped up in June, she said repeat polling has shown an uptick in public support for dams.
The spots were aimed at women ages 25 to 45 – a demographic responsible for many of the financial decisions for their households and who are less likely than men to have definite opinions about hydropower, Flores said.
The goal is to continue the advertising campaign, which costs about $1 million annually, for another two years, dependent on funding, she said.