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Report Urges Power Conservation Efforts

by Mike Lee
Tri-City Herald, April 10, 2000

The power produced by the four Lower Snake River dams could be replaced "affordably" by conservation and other environmentally friendly power sources, according to a report to be released today by two conservation groups.

They are calling for conservation measures by lawmakers and Northwest residents, whose conservation track record has worsened in recent years.

Today's report is sure to draw criticism from many who say it's senseless to breach hydropower dams in the face of looming power shortages.

If the future cost of energy follows predictions, "replacing power produced by the dams with clean, pollution-free alternatives would cost no more than replacing it with fossil fuel sources," said the Northwest Energy Coalition and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

They want to see a combination of wind and solar power with energy-efficient practices - investments that likely would have to be directed by policy-makers rather than market forces.

Under that plan, electric bills probably would be $1 to $3 more per month for residential customers of utilities that get all their power from the Bonneville Power Administration, the report said.

That's about the same expected increase if Lower Snake hydropower is replaced by gas-fired plants - and it would be small enough to keep Washington's residential power rates well below the national average.

"There is a lot of conservation available and there is lot of renewable energy available," said John Harrison at the Northwest Power Planning Council, the public board convened to plan for the region's power needs. "The question is price.

"What if (the ratepayers) don't want to pay $1 to $3 a month. Who is going to deal with that?"

The Army Corps of Engineers is looking at removing the dams between Pasco and Lewiston to create a more "natural" river channel for federally protected fish runs.

The Corps' recommendation to Congress about dam breaching is expected this year, and influencing that decision has become a top priority for many environmental groups.

Their most recent report is an attempt to respond to criticism that tearing down the dams would force the region to build natural gas-fired plants and add to global-warming concerns.

"We are not trying to trade environmental problems," said Nancy Hirsh, policy director for the energy coalition. "Let's look at clean energy and see how it stacks up."

With gas prices so high, conservation looks good, said Karen Garrison, policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "And if the price of energy fuels continues to rise, clean energy will be even cheaper than relying on fossil-fuel generation," she said.

The four lower Snake dams produce about 1,100 megawatts of power, enough to supply roughly five percent of the region's need. Replacing that power without carbon-fuels would take a government policy change to force conservation measures such as energy-efficient windows and appliances.

Hirsh said the biggest gains from conservation are in industry - aluminum, lumber and food production - where motors often run at the same speed even if they have little or no load. Variable speed motors, energy-efficient lighting and updated building codes to reduce power consumption are all on the list of ways to cut energy demand.

While that savings isn't immediately available - it takes years to implement such broad-scale changes - backers of the conservation plan say the key is timing.

"If a decision were made to remove the dams today, they wouldn't come out tomorrow," Hirsh said. "We will have time to tap into the vast reservoir of energy savings available in the Pacific Northwest."

But the region is already in a power bind. "We need to do something soon," said Harrison, who had not seen the energy council's final report. "We probably can't get what we need with conservation and renewables alone, but they need to be part of the mix."

A combination of poor hydropower conditions, very cold weather and other conditions present "an almost 1-in-4 chance of not getting through the winter without a supply interruption" by 2003, according to a recent power council report.

There are worries projected shortages aren't big enough to entice investors to meet the demand, especially not in today's uncertain world of power marketing.

And, Harrison said, conservation doesn't provide for the ability to boost power rapidly to meet a spike in demand, for instance a weeklong cold snap across the Northwest.

"Those dams can be turned up immediately," Harrison said. "You can't just go out and install conservation and get it ... right now."

Mike Lee
Report Urges Power Conservation Efforts
Tri-City Herald, April 10, 2000

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