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Dam power: Snake River dams are not big power producers, but play an important regional role

UPDATED: Mon., March 8, 2021

After nearly two decades of politicking, controversy and dispute, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the Cascade Locks on the Columbia River, near The Dalles, Oregon, allowing boats laden with goods to pass by once unnavigable rapids.

That was in 1896, and it was the start of a decadeslong effort to make the Snake River passable year -round for boats of commerce, according to historian Keith Petersen. To do so, the Corps of Engineers would eventually pepper the Columbia River system with dams – none more controversial than four built on the Lower Snake River.

When the dams were built – Ice Harbor Dam in 1962, Lower Monumental Dam in 1969, Little Goose Dam in 1970 and Lower Granite in 1975 – they flooded 14,400 acres, washing away ancient Native American gathering sites, burial grounds, fishing holes and towns. Salmon populations plummeted with the dams, which cut off 55% of the Columbia Basin’s fish habitat. In 1991, Snake River sockeye salmon were protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The four dams were not built with power in mind. Instead, they were designed to allow barge traffic to travel upriver from Portland into the heart of Washington and Idaho farm country. This focus may be unusual for the power-rich Columbia River System, but it’s not uncommon. Of the 80,000 or so dams in the United States, 2,400 produce power.

Those four dams – and their spiraling interconnected impacts – have been the center of a century or more of argument. And that history is back in the spotlight after Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson proposed a $33.5 billion plan to breach the four dams.

Yet the one thing that isn’t disputed when it comes to the four Lower Snake River Dams is that they produce just a fraction of the energy that feeds into the Pacific Northwest’s power grid.

Altogether, the four dams produce on average 933 megawatts of power, according to a 2019 Bonneville Power Administration analysis. A megawatt is equal to a thousand kilowatts or a million watts, all of which is an increasingly granular way of saying, a lot of power, by standard human considerations.

One megawatt is enough to power about 800 typical northwest homes for a year.

But viewed within the larger context of the regional power grid, 933 megawatts is a small portion of the energy produced and needed. Grand Coulee dam, for instance, produces an average of 2,400 megawatts. All told, the dams that dot the Columbia River basin – both federal and nonfederal – produce 14,000 megawatts.

A quick note: The megawatt numbers listed here are the average yearly output of these dams. This is in contrast to the dams’ “nameplate” capacity, which is the maximum capacity.

Which is to say, the Lower Snake dams are role players, when it comes to total energy output.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important players.

Capacity, capacity, capacity

Like the sixth man on a basketball team, the Lower Snake River dams sub into the great power game exactly at the right moment. Perhaps they don’t have the stamina, speed, consistency or size to play the whole game, but employed at the correct time and in the correct manner, they’re valuable assets, giving the team the needed push to win .

In the power world, this is known as capacity. Capacity is that perfectly timed substitution, late in a game, where an undersized defensive specialist makes a critical play.

Grid capacity is what allowed Washingtonians to crank up the air conditioning during last summer’s heat wave.

And that is where the four Lower Snake River dams prove their value, argues Kurt Miller, the executive director of Northwest River Partners, an advocacy group for hydroelectric power based in Vancouver, Wash.

“Even though they are not nearly as big as Grand Coulee Dam that can hold water one season to another, they can hold water for multiple-day use, and that can get you through a cold or heat wave,” Miller said.

Prior to taking the helm at Northwest River Partners, Miller spent two decades at Portland General Electric. Since diving into the advocacy world – particularly where his work collides with salmon, which it invariably does – he’s gained an appreciation for the complexity of the dam issue in the Pacific Northwest.

“The electric system is complex,” he said. “It’s not as complex as salmon. But it is complex.”

Miller is sensitive to this history and apologetic for the various smashed treaties and flooded homelands that paved the way for the dams. But at the end of the day, he’s committed to hydropower and the raft of benefits it provides.

Wind and solar, both attractive power alternatives to hydropower, don’t provide the consistent power that a flowing river does. The wind tends not to blow in the heat of the summer, nor does the sun shine in the dead of winter. While large-scale lithium battery storage technology is improving, it’s not yet up to the task and comes with its own unique problems, he argues.

“While we’re pro-hydroelectric, we’re definitely not anti-wind or solar,” Miller said. “They are a big part of the future. They’re great for energy. But they don’t produce dependable capacity. As a matter of fact, you can depend on them not to be there when there’s demand for electricity.”

Nancy Hirsh, the executive director for the NW Energy Coalition, agreed this is all true.

But it won’t be for long.

“Everything we need to replace those projects is already deployed commercially,” she said. “It’s not at the scale we need right now.”

Hirsh, and the NW Energy Coalition, said the best path forward is to breach the four lower Snake River dams. She said that while the technology perhaps isn’t yet ready for prime time, by the time breaching is a reality, it will be.

Simpson’s plan calls for breaching the four lower dams in 10 years.

“We have a decade to plan and put in place and develop all of these resources,” Hirsh said. “And that’s where we have confidence that the system has changed so much in the last decade that it will continue to evolve. And the costs will continue to come down.”

In 2018, the NW Energy Coalition commissioned and published a study finding that the energy produced by the four lower Snake River dams could be replaced by a mix of other clean energy sources. More importantly, the study, which was conducted by a Utah-based energy company, concluded that the capacity could also be replaced by clean energy sources without substantially raising consumer costs.

In response, Northwest River Partners commissioned its own study critiquing the NW Energy Coalition’s study. It found that the pro-breaching study relied on “out-of-date” assumptions and didn’t take into account the decommissioning of coal plants around the West, which it estimated will remove roughly 20,000 megawatts of energy from the grid. The replacement energy and storage source portfolios highlighted in the NW Energy Coalition study were “infeasible or significantly underestimate costs.”

The Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency that markets the power produced by the Snake River dams, estimated that to breach the dams and maintain the current level of grid stability it would need to add 1,960 megawatts of additional solar resources and 980 megawatts of battery storage.

The big picture

It’s helpful to look at the big picture, said Daniel Kirschen, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Washington.

The power grid of which we are a part is, simply put, huge.

Called the Western Interconnection, it spans 14 western U.S. states, the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, and the northernmost part of Mexico. That energy flows through 136,000 miles of transmission lines delivering power, more or less on demand, to roughly 80 million people, allowing them to flick on the lights, crank up the heat, charge iPhones and more.

“It’s a huge grid,” Kirschen said. “And so, those dams produce power that is fed into that grid.”

As of 2019, 26% of the Western Interconnection’s energy capacity came from hydroelectric, second only to natural gas at 36%, followed by coal at 12%.

The size and diversity of that grid is an asset.

It complicates simplistic arguments for and against the four Lower Snake River Dams. Certainly, they are valuable, Kirschen said. They provide carbon free energy and capacity. As the dire effects of climate change push our culture away from coal and other carbon burning fuel, our need for cleanly produced electricity will only grow.

At the same time, the four Lower Snake River Dams are just one small part of a large, diverse system. They’re not indispensable, as some argue. Battery technology is improving, and utilities across the country are installing more and more lithium battery storage.

Within the next decade, nearly 7,000 megawatts of battery storage are planned for construction throughout the Western Interconnection, according to a 2019 report. Elon Musk is pouring money into battery research and development. Meanwhile, smart grid technology – which would integrate household appliances and electric cars to the grid and use their small batteries as a dispersed storage device – are making strides. Old ideas like pump storage, a hydroelectric energy storage that uses two reservoirs and gravity to store and produce energy, are also options.

“They have value. But again, we have a big grid. One of the advantages of having a big grid is you can compensate,” Kirschen said. “It is definitely something that needs to be looked at. What is the value of (the dams) flexibility to the whole grid?”

Looking at all the options

When it comes to energy and capacity, looking at all the options is the goal of Simpson’s plan.

The plan would give the Bonneville Power Administration $10 billion to replace the energy and capacity produced at the Lower Snake River dams, Simpson said. Plus, an additional $4 billion to upgrade transmission capabilities.

“We’re not talking wind and solar, although that will probably be a part of everything because those sources of power are growing in the Pacific Northwest,” he said in an interview last week. “It has to be firm power that you can ramp up and ramp down as the need demands.”

In addition to the above technologies – batteries, pump storage – he highlighted the role small modular reactors could play. SMRs are a type of nuclear power.

“If you’re going to address climate change, you really can’t address climate change without the addition of nuclear power as being a part of that solution,” Simpson said. “And what better place to do that than at Hanford, you know?”

Locally, Avista Utilities said the impact of the current proposal seems to be “indirect.”

“However, its effect on communities we serve could be significant,” Casey Fielder, a company spokesperson, said in an email. “It could also have regional ramifications of clear interest to Avista. Gauging the precise extent and nature of the proposal’s potential implications is difficult without more specific information about replacement generation and other measures (conservation, demand response, transmission upgrades) that the proposal does not yet define.”

Choices and values

The experts aren’t convinced that Simpson’s plan can address the technical difficulties. But then again, they aren’t convinced it will fail, either.

“Whenever you’re talking about technology, breakthroughs are hard to predict,” said Anjan Bose, a professor in the school of electrical engineering and computer science at Washington State University and senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Energy in the Obama administration. “Ten years is not an unreasonable time to think of.”

However, he cautioned that pure technical innovation isn’t enough. It’s also a question of scalability and cost.

And, while it’s tempting to look for clear-cut answers, when the facts run out, it becomes a question of choices and values. How much are decimated salmon populations worth? Buried native lands? Cheap wheat shipping prices? What about within in the context of global warming and the necessity of a carbon-reduced future?

“The big picture is very complex,” Bose said. “I don’t blame people for trying to make things simple.”

Orion Donovan-Smith contributed reporting.

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