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CRITFC Develops Vision for Fish,
Energy in Columbia Basin

by KC Mehaffey
NW Fishletter, May 2, 2022

"When the river is ramped up and down to accommodate peak loads,
it kills salmon and disrupts fish migration."

-- Ed Sheets, former Council executive director

Graphic: The Flex Spill Experiment has apparently been deadly for juvenile salmon migration in the two uppermost reservoirs of the Lower Snake River hydropower system. (source data: NOAA's preliminary survival memos, Zabel to Graves). The Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission envisions a Columbia Basin with healthy and harvestable salmon runs, and clean, reliable and affordable electricity while also protecting tribal and natural resources amidst a growth surge of new renewable energy projects, the group says.

Leaders from CRITFC -- which works on behalf of four Columbia Basin tribes to restore salmon and protect tribal treaty rights -- shared the group's 2022 Energy Vision for the Columbia River Basin with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council on April 13.

"We know the climate crisis is already underway," CRITFC Executive Director Aja DeCoteau told the Council. She said climate change combined with the region's rapid transition to new clean-energy sources could put salmon at further risk of extinction and threaten other resources, such as big game and access to traditional foods.

With salmon already in trouble, CRITFC presenters told the Council they would like to see less reliance on hydroelectricity and a greater focus on energy efficiency, energy storage and on-site solar systems. Developing local clean-energy systems would reduce the need for major upgrades to the distribution system and save billions of dollars in transmission costs that could fall on ratepayers. The region also needs to develop a plan outlining where transmission and renewable resources like wind and solar farms should be built, and where they should not, the leaders said.

More than a year in the making, CRITFC's energy vision engaged the expertise of six energy experts. Rob Lothrop, CRITFC Policy Department manager, said they included former BPA Administrator Randy Hardy, and economist and former Portland General Electric manager Robert McCullough, who were engaged as consultants on the project. A draft was reviewed by more than two dozen organizations and outside experts.

The vision as developed by CRITFC includes 43 energy-related recommendations, the first of which involves a Columbia Basin hydro system plan that includes breaching the four lower Snake River dams. That recommendation was outlined in a letter to the Council that states, "The region should prepare to implement river restoration, dam configurations and river operations that are compatible with, and support, healthy and harvestable fish populations . . . These recommendations include breaching the four lower Snake River dams, spill operations at run of river dams, flow regulated operations at storage dams, structural modifications to aid salmon and lamprey passage, needed maintenance, flood control studies, actions to improve water temperatures, and capability for lower Snake River dam breaching."

"We know various folks in the region, including member tribes, are laser-focused on the lower Snake River dams, and we think that planning needs to take into account the possibility that those dams will be removed in the future," Lothrop told the Council, noting that CRITFC's energy vision strongly recommends breaching those dams.

Ed Sheets, former Council executive director who worked as a consultant on the energy vision, said the plan recognizes that energy adequacy is a big debate in the region and said CRITFC is also concerned about ensuring adequate energy after experiencing the energy shortages in 2001 that led BPA and others to cut back dramatically on fish protection measures.

"We're concerned that if the lights are about to go out, the salmon protections will go out before the lights," he said.

Lothrop said one way to improve reliability is to reduce peak loads through energy efficiency, demand response and other methods.

Sheets said when the river is ramped up and down to accommodate peak loads, it kills salmon and disrupts fish migration. It also increases costs for consumers who are paying high prices for peak energy resources and the cost of distribution, he said.

Sheets said utilities should shift the heating and cooling of buildings and water to out-of-peak times. They also should provide clear price signals on the costs of serving peak loads, and adopt time-of-use electric rates, he said. The vision also focuses on smart-charging of electric vehicles. "A lot of people come home after work and start charging at the worst possible time. We have some recommendations to address that," he said.

Sheets added, "Renewable resources in combination with batteries and electric load management can create an environment that is better for fish and we think also reduce consumer costs."

Lothrop said changes in Washington and Oregon clean energy laws have created a "gold rush" over new renewable projects and transmission plans. Those projects could have significant impacts on large game species, winter ranges, root gathering and other natural resources.

"Our process to develop this 2022 vision really started with observing the phenomenal amount of change going on in the world of energy supplies in the Western U.S.," Lothrop said, adding, "We want to make sure that fish and wildlife and tribal resources are protected."

Sheets said there's an opportunity now for the four Northwest states to develop a regional plan for clear and uniform standards for siting new renewable energy projects that are close to electric loads and make use of existing transmission lines as much as possible. Proper siting will provide greater reliability and lower costs for consumers, he added.

Other key parts from CRITFC's vision are to reduce greenhouse gas pollution to try to avoid its devastating impacts and amend the Columbia River Treaty to include ecosystem function as a main goal.

Some of CRITFC's other recommendations as outlined in a letter to the Council would involve funding heat-pump water heaters; ensuring pumped-storage sites are consistent with siting criteria; increasing conservation targets in the Council's 8th Power Plan; analyzing the integration of renewable resources under a range of scenarios for river operations; and adopting net-zero energy building standards.

Council members said they appreciated the effort that went into CRITFC's vision.

Vice Chair Doug Grob of Montana commented that people often miss the fact that renewables are cyclical. "If they go down, you need some other shafted resource to carry you up and through, from an adequacy standpoint," he said. But, he said, adding more wind and solar exacerbates the need to ramp up, unless the region is willing to go to rolling blackouts or finding some other way of accommodating their cyclical nature.

Member KC Golden of Washington said CRITFC's vision brings up the challenges ahead with the siting of new renewable resources, adding that he appreciates the idea of developing a regional plan for where new wind and solar farms should or should not be placed.

"I think this is a much bigger challenge in the sense that, in the end, we need to have a lot more green lights in addition to the red lights" for where renewable projects can be sited, he said.

Member Louie Pitt, of Oregon, reminded fellow Council members that when CRITFC talks about their treaties, those are between the U.S. and the tribes, and it's the job of citizens and the state and federal governments to honor them.

KC Mehaffey
CRITFC Develops Vision for Fish, Energy in Columbia Basin
NW Fishletter, May 2, 2022

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