Lower Snake River Dams help keep the lights on

By Commissioners Russ Skolrood, Arie Callaghan and Dave Timmons

When the lights go out, they usually come back on quickly.  The Northwest’s reliable power network and professional line crews help to ensure that.  However, a situation exists that could render those points moot.  What happens when the lights go out because there is not enough power to handle the demand?  While it may seem an unlikely occurrence, that scenario could become a reality if the reliable power resources of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) are removed.

Hydroelectric power in the Northwest has been fighting to defend its value for years, but recently the call for dam removal on the Lower Snake River in particular has increased in volume.  However, those who believe the dams to be expendable tend to overlook a few facts that lead to a concrete conclusion: those dams help keep the lights on in the Northwest.  

To say that the four dams on the Lower Snake, the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite, are a critical component on the Northwest power system is all fine and well, but when you examine the numbers, it becomes even clearer.  The power coming from the four dams strengthens the backbone of the Northwest power system and can be ramped up and down as needed.  That’s not the case with wind and solar power.  Those resources certainly have their value and their growth should be encouraged, but they should be part of an integrated energy system, not one that eliminates a tried and true resource like hydro just to replace it with something new.

One of the most overlooked facts about alternative energy resources like wind and solar is the most obvious: the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun is not up 24 hours a day.  That creates some big reliability gaps and without suitable, affordable storage solutions, those resources simply cannot be counted on to power an entire region, certainly not one that already has a reliable energy base.  Reliability is what makes hydropower special.  Times of peak demand are when the Lower Snake Dams are needed most and unlike those other sources, they don’t come up short.   At times of peak water flow, the dams can produce in excess of 2600 megawatts of energy.  That number represents 10 percent of the FCRPS capacity.  It seems shortsighted to eliminate a tenth of the power generated on the rivers and replace it with the hope that new generation will be there to keep the lights on. 

Imagine arriving home on a cold night only to find that the power was out, not because of an accident, but because the power wasn’t available to meet the region’s needs.  Without the Lower Snake Dams it could have happened on March 5 of this year. As a late winter cold snap caused temperatures across the Northwest to plunge, Bonneville Power Administration wind generation was accounting for just six megawatts during the coldest evening hours; a time when people were arriving home, turning on their lights and heaters, seeking a little comfort.  At that time, the Lower Snake Dams were called on to churn out 1337 megawatts for heating homes, powering appliances and running lifesaving medical equipment – basic needs for thousands of Northwest residents.  To put it in simpler terms, they were providing comfort and safety when it was needed. 

Capacity issues under current conditions alone make the Lower Snake River dams valuable, but those conditions are changing.  The Pacific Northwest is growing and growing fast.  According to the US Census Bureau, the region gained over 200,000 new residents between July 2016 and July 2017.  Washington alone is anticipated to have over 7.5-million residents by 2020.  Combine those numbers with nearly 3000 megawatts lost by the retirement of coal fired facilities in Montana, Oregon and Washington and it begs the question: Is now really the time to consider ripping out proven resources with nothing more than the hope that new resources can cover the need? 

Storms, damaged equipment and car accidents are all unavoidable causes of power outages.  Power utilities deal with them, make repairs and move on.  Threatening the system with an outage that can be avoided makes no sense.  The Lower Snake River Dams help keep the light on throughout the Northwest.  Allow them to continue that essential service.

 


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