The Spokesman-Review’s Sept. 30 article “Feds asking public to weigh in on breaching Snake River dams” allowed to go unanswered a statement claiming that, if the region chooses to remove the four outdated and expensive dams on the lower Snake River, the hydroenergy they produce will have to be replaced by building a carbon-emitting natural gas plant that adds to climate pollution.
In short, the claim is that we can have either salmon restoration or we can have carbon-free energy, but not both. This is a false choice of the kind that moved the federal court to find that the federal agencies failed to adequately consider viable options, including ones that can replace the electricity from these dams with carbon-free, clean and renewable energy and help to bring back our amazing salmon. Here are the facts they are overlooking.
The Northwest electricity grid has changed tremendously in the past 20 years. Building on our abundant hydropower resources, Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana have developed new, renewable resources totaling more than 2,500 average megawatts (aMW) from wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy, with another 1,500 aMW under construction or in the final stages of approval. On top of this we continue to make strong advances in conservation and energy efficiency, saving more than 5,500 aMW of electricity over the years.
The four lower Snake River dams produce about 1,000 aMW of electricity each year, or about 5 percent of the Northwest’s supply. The claim that the only way we can replace this power is by building a new natural gas plant to burn fossil fuels is just not credible in light of the changing ways in which electricity needs are being met. Even as capacity from new renewables expands, the electric grid is evolving, and we’re becoming smarter about how we generate, consume and manage electricity.
Despite dire predictions from skeptics, utilities and electricity system operators have successfully integrated new, renewable resources and built energy efficiency equivalent to over a dozen natural gas-fired plants. We are improving how we bundle wind and solar from different geographic areas to increase reliability of renewable energy contributions to system operations. And we are beginning to use energy markets to more efficiently utilize all the existing resources we have.
Finally, the region is expanding a broad collection of energy efficiency, distributed clean renewables, energy storage and load management programs that make renewables even more reliable and affordable. In these ways and others, Northwest ingenuity has proved the skeptics wrong while also providing some of the lowest electric rates in the nation.
By the time changes to the lower Snake River system are made, the portfolio of low-carbon resources will be even more robust and more than able to meet the capacity and energy needs of the region. Meanwhile, the cost of new solar, wind and other renewables is plunging, while the cost to maintain the aging dams is only going to increase.
That’s why two recent studies, one by the NW Energy Coalition and one by Rocky Mountain Econometrics, find that we can replace the power from the four lower Snake River dams at little additional cost to customers through new, renewable energy, purchases of clean energy from existing sources, and smart planning and system coordination.
All of this is a part of building an integrated and modern electricity grid that meets customers’ needs, protects the environment and contributes our share to climate action. Our greatest asset is our ingenuity and ability to adapt. If we apply these skills to the challenge of providing carbon-free, clean energy, and restoring healthy salmon populations, we will secure a clean, reliable and affordable energy future.
That’s why we emphatically do not have to choose between restoring the ancient cycle of salmon in the Northwest that is part of our region’s way of life and having low-carbon energy. We can and should have both.
Nancy Hirsh is the executive director of the NW Energy Coalition, an alliance of environmental, labor, civic, faith and human service organizations.