By Jasen Bronec
Imagine a world where it’s normal to flip a light switch and the room remains dark. That scary thought is a looming reality if the dams on the lower Snake River are breached.
Tearing down the productive dams on the lower Snake River will have far ranging impacts beyond destroying farmland and eliminating low-carbon barging on the river. Any publicly owned utility, from northern Nevada to Montana that purchases power from the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) will be forced to raise rates for nearly 3 million residents in the region, hurting those who already struggle to pay their bills.
Furthermore, eliminating any hydropower producing dams in the Pacific Northwest would have catastrophic impacts on grid reliability. Two-thirds of North America faces reliability challenges in the event of widespread heatwaves, according to the National Energy Reliability Commission (NERC) in their 2023 Summer Reliability Assessment released earlier this month. Additionally, it says: Areas in the U.S. West are at elevated risk due to area-wide heat events that can drive above-normal demand and strain resources and the transmission network.
This should be alarming to everyone. Lack of grid reliability threatens our power supply, which energizes everything from air conditioners and heaters to medical and charging devices. Furthermore, NERC’s assessment doesn’t account for the goals the U.S. has pledged to electrify our transportation sector.
In a scenario where our grid becomes unreliable and rolling blackouts become the norm, not only will it have happened on lawmakers’ watch, but it will be because of laws and regulations many of them voted to pass. Nothing is impossible for those who don’t have to execute it. It isn’t just a matter of political whims. A strong, reliable grid is fundamental to human life. Without it, lives will be in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned NERC warning doesn’t matter much to nongovernmental organizations that have built a three-decade campaign to tear down four of the Pacific Northwest’s most reliable, carbon-free generators of electricity. Removing the hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River is an unscientific and illogical position that some non-indigenous salmon harvest advocates have used to raise money solely to spread one-sided hyperbole. What they refuse to see is that as coal power continues to be retired, hydroelectricity provides us with the carbon-free baseload power when the wind isn’t blowing and sun isn’t shining. It’s reliable, flexible, affordable and clean.
Inland Power members are keenly aware of issues surrounding the lower Snake River dams. During this year’s state legislative session, more than 750 of Inland’s members reached out to lawmakers encouraging them to support hydro.
Even the Biden administration recently acknowledged the value of hydropower in its report “On the Path to 100% Clean Energy.” The May 2023 Department of Energy report recognizes our region’s most abundant energy source as necessary for maintaining, and growing, clean energy generation. It further highlighted hydropower as necessary ” … capacity that can be relied upon to generate during times of system need.”
At the heart of this debate there is one thing we can all agree on – we all want more salmon. The question is whether we sacrifice everything the dams provide – clean, reliable, affordable power, irrigation, transportation and recreation – on a mere hope that salmon will return in record numbers. Our region can and must find a way to balance these equally important needs based on science without making sacrifices derived from hope.
On the other side of hope there is reality. The reality is that when the same groups pushing for dam removal also push for decarbonization through the electrification of our transportation system and heating infrastructure, their demands can’t be contradictive. To truly address the climate crisis, reality demands that the noncarbon energy generation from hydropower must remain, especially from dams with existing successful fish passage technology.
If you are concerned about grid reliability and avoiding blackouts, the dams are worth fighting for. If you’re concerned about climate change, the dams are required for our clean energy infrastructure. If you’re concerned about food insecurity or the burden of increased rates on our most vulnerable members of society, dams must be a piece of the solution. Any way you look at the facts, the reality is, the dams on the lower Snake River are paramount for our future.
Jasen Bronec is the CEO of Inland Power & Light.