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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Northwest’s Big Hydro has begun to think small

We’re all about Big Hydro in the Northwest: from Grand Coulee Dam down to Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River; Noxon Rapids and Cabinet Gorge on the Clark Fork; Hells Canyon on the Snake; Diablo and Ross on the Skagit.

Lately, we’re becoming just as well known for the hydro we’re eliminating: the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams on the Elwha River; the Condit on the White Salmon River.

But the urge to connect falling water to generator remains, it’s just been considerably downsized: from 7,000 megawatts at Grand Coulee to the 10-megawatt installations that could be rapidly permitted under legislation before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. All the senators from Washington, Idaho and Alaska are co-sponsors, along with Ron Wyden of Oregon.

A companion measure has already passed the House of Representatives – twice. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was one of two prime sponsors, the other being Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. Passage had to be repeated because the bill passed only the House in the last Congress, so it had to be reintroduced and repassed in the new Congress that convened in January. Both the 2012 and 2013 votes were unanimous.

If that and the bipartisan sponsorship in the Senate does not make the almost universal support for these hydropower measures obvious enough, consider that the bill had the backing not only of the American Hydropower Association, but sometimes nemesis American Rivers, which has been a strong advocate of dam removals.

That organization is on board because the hydro-electric development that would be sanctioned by the new legislation has nothing to do with the big, fish migration-blocking structures the Northwest has come to realize are a mixed blessing. The Hydropower Improvement Act of 2013 (Senate title) applies to projects that would produce 10 megawatts or less at existing dams with no generating plant. Northwest residents who get more than one-half their electricity from dams might be surprised to find out only 3 percent of the 80,000 dams in the United States have hydropower capability.

The unused, environmentally benign hydro-generating resource in the country probably exceeds what has already been captured, which points to one small irony of the Senate bill: all the co-sponsors are from the Northwest, which has less to gain from its passage than other regions. Cheap power from existing dams, low-cost natural gas and abundant wind power make most small-hydro in the region too expensive to compete.

The biggest benefit here may be the ability to use small hydro projects to back up unreliable wind and solar generation, and a cleaner atmosphere. Just the 7 percent of electricity produced in the U.S. using hydropower eliminates 200 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year.

Hydro-electric power has been a good idea for more than a century. Big Hydro was the 20th century version. For the 21st, better to think small.

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