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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Sen. Mark Schoesler: Efforts to breach dams, limit natural gas will hurt energy consumers

Sen. Mark Schoesler

By Sen. Mark Schoesler

As anyone who has recently bought gasoline knows, prices at the pump have hit record highs. The spike has been a major driver in the historic inflation American consumers are being forced to endure.

Thanks to two abundant, inexpensive energy sources – hydropower and natural gas – many in our region see lower energy costs compared to areas in America where hydropower is not available.

But there are signs that our region’s days of affordable energy might be in danger.

Start with the relentless crusade by environmentalists to force the breaching of the four lower Snake River dams between Clarkston and the Tri-Cities. Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray last fall announced a “study” on how to replace the benefits of these federal dams, which produce about 1,000 megawatts of electric power, on average. (That production can peak to 2,500 megawatts or more during winter, which is important when less solar power is generated during winter’s darker days, and there can be several days without wind.) The four Snake dams provide needed baseline power when Hanford’s nuclear plant shuts down for refueling, and the generating dollars that come from hydropower fund many fish and wildlife projects.

According to a separate federal study, removing these four dams would destabilize the Northwest’s power grid, increase overall greenhouse-gas emissions, and more than double the risk of power outages in the region.

The Snake dams still produce power at a lower rate than wind or solar. According to Bonneville Power Administration, the current cost of power generation at the four dams is less than a penny per kilowatt hour, and less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour when you factor in current fully loaded costs. Without subsidies, the utility-scale cost to generate solar power in the Northwest ranges between 3 and 4.1 cents per kilowatt hour, while wind costs between 2.6 and 5 cents.

The power lost if the four dams are removed can’t be fully replaced by alternative energy sources – and that matters, because much greater demand for electricity is expected in the future. Wind and solar don’t provide the steady foundation to sufficiently support this region’s power grid. Wind doesn’t blow constantly, so it isn’t a reliable power source at all hours. Solar panels don’t generate power when it’s dark. And there still isn’t technology to store that energy.

The four dams on the lower Snake provide dedicated fish passage, as do the four dams on the Columbia River below the Snake. If Inslee and other environmentalists want to target dams on the Snake, why not the Hells Canyon, Oxbow and Brownlee dams, located farther upriver in Idaho? None offers fish passage. Better yet, why don’t they demand the removal of the Seattle City Light dams on the Skagit River – the largest river flowing into Puget Sound? They don’t because those dams, which also offer no fish passage, supply 20% of Seattle’s electricity.

The four lower Snake dams are a convenient scapegoat for declining salmon numbers in the Columbia-Snake River watershed, though the spring chinook salmon count at Bonneville Dam is the highest since 2015. The more likely culprits include increased pollution in Puget Sound and other waters, and predation by sea lions and other animals.

Then there’s the crusade by Inslee and his cronies against the affordable energy offered by natural gas. The governor-appointed State Building Code Council recently voted to change the state’s energy code by requiring new businesses and apartments to mostly use heat pumps to warm air and water, beginning in July 2023. With few exceptions, this revision would pretty much ban HVAC systems that use natural gas.

This is just another Democratic plan that will make housing less affordable, in the name of green energy. It’s laughable how Democrats claim to be concerned about the working class, yet their actions, such as 2021’s adoption of a costly low-carbon fuel standard, will increase the price to heat homes.

In 2020, Washington consumed less natural gas than half of the states in the nation. In 2019, our state used less natural gas per capita than all but four other states and the District of Columbia. Note to the State Building Code Council: We’re not a big natural-gas user, so don’t punish us as if we are.

Unfortunately, proponents of this natural-gas ban apparently are looking to extend this ban to new residential homes. It makes you wonder how much more a new home will cost if such a ban becomes reality.

If the four Snake River dams are removed from our power grid and if more homes, apartments and businesses are forced to forgo natural gas as a heat source, consumers in eastern Washington can expect to pay more for energy. For a financially struggling family, that’s unaffordable – and unacceptable.

Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, serves the 9th Legislative District.

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