Despite Troubled Past, Hydro Remains
by Jamie Bedwell
Although the era of building massive dams may be passed, states still look to harnessing the power of water to meet demands for renewable resources.
Long before the political quest for renewable resources, hydropower provided reliable energy to most of the West - and lots of it. But it came at the cost of a massive effort to dam the Colorado, Columbia, Missouri, Snake and almost every other major river in the region.
Dams provide enough energy to power millions of homes and they irrigate huge swaths of land. The Hoover Dam alone produces over 2,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power more than 2 million homes by itself. Compare that to the largest wind farm in the world, which generates less than half that amount.
Although hydropower is by far the most widely used renewable resource, the political push to diversify renewable portfolio standards in the U.S. has shifted the focus from building large dams to upgrading operating capacity at existing ones, and building smaller hydropower plants that affect the waterways less.
From Dams to Neutrons
Through the 1950s and '60s, the Bureau of Reclamation, along with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, built more than 600 dams in the West, including the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River.
By the 1960s, environmental concerns regarding the impact of the dams and the continued growth of the Northwest began to force regional planners away from further hydropower projects. So in the 1970s, the region embarked on an ambitious program to build nuclear power plants.
"At the time, it was considered to be the go-go resource of the future," John Harrison, information officer at Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said.
The Northwest decided to build five nuclear power plants to help augment the hydropower plants, hoping they would be able to meet the region's needs and produce enough energy to sell additional power for a profit.
"It didn't work. And it didn't work in a spectacular fashion," Harrison said, adding planners vastly overestimated the future demand for power.
As the costs of the nuclear plants mounted and the American public turned away from nuclear in the wake of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania, a project being constructed by the Washington Public Power Supply System collapsed. It was the largest municipal bond default in United States history at the time.
"We are still paying, today, for nuclear plants that were never constructed, and we will be until about 2025," Harrison said.
Caught Between Default and a Fish Place
Even as regional power authorities reeled from the collapse of the nuclear effort, environmental activists were arguing against the older large-scale dams, saying they were causing dramatic drops in salmon populations.
To help address the dual issues, Congress authorized the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington to form the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. According to the its website, "the Council develops and maintains a regional power plan and a fish and wildlife program to balance the Northwest's environment and energy needs."
Although there are other interstate compacts, none have the degree of responsibility that Congress granted the panel.
"It's an unusual beast. It's an interstate compact authorized by federal law, there's nothing else like in the nation," Harrison said of the 30-year-old agency.
The council set out to address the three primary concerns facing energy consumers in the region. First, in the wake of the nuclear energy debacle, it developed a plan to guarantee reliable, low-cost energy to the Northwest for the next 20 years. This plan is reviewed and revised every five years.
Second, to address diminishing populations of salmon and other wildlife concerns, the council developed a program to protect and rebuild fish and wildlife populations affected by hydropower development in the Columbia River Basin. Bonneville, the federal power agency in charge of the region, is required to pay for this. The council's final task is to educate and involve the public in its decision-making processes.
"Bonneville is required to make decisions about future power supply that are 'consistent' - that's the verb in the law - with Northwest Power and Conservation Council's plan," Harrison said.
That agreement would end up leading to an era of continued growth in the use of hydropower, until the energy picture in the region changed.
"When I first started, it was all about Bonneville having no power. They were going to start cutting people off, so renewables were really hot at that point. And we had what was called the 'hydro-gold rush,'" saidvJan Lee, executive director Northwest Hydroelectric Association.
Later, natural gas became a leading technology, and when the price of power went down, interest in hydro dropped with it.
By the 1990s, many dams started turning 50 years old, meaning they would need to go through a lengthy process of relicensing, further cooling interest in major hydro power efforts, but as the interest in big energy shrank, many took a look at more modest hydropower projects.
"Now the trend in hydro is towards more renewable resources and small hydro," Lee said.
Small Hydro Vs. Big Hydro
What exactly defines "small" versus "big" hydro is somewhat in the eye of the beholder. Canada, for example, considers a 50 MW facility to be small hydro. The United States, by contrast, generally considers 10 MW as the upper limit of what can be termed small hydro, although, even here, some states stretch the definition to include 25 or 30 MW facilities.
Is small hydro a way of preventing widespread environmental impacts or is it actually creating many more, but smaller impacts?
The rise of smaller hydro projects gave rise to a new raft of green concerns as Amy Linn wrote about for New West in 2009, saying it could be the wave of the future "or a death-knell for wild and free rivers and habitats."
But small hydro projects continue to spring up across the West, including Youngs Creek in the Cascade Foothills of Washington, as Linn wrote. Like most similar projects, this is being built above where salmon and other migratory fish swim. The project is slated to be completed this year and will generate 7.5 MW of power at its peak, enough electricity to power between 3,500 and 7,500 homes.
"We're seeing water and irrigation districts, cities with pipelines doing small hydro within their pipeline systems, which are called conduit exemptions," Lee said. It takes six months to a year to get most conduit exemptions approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
"It's a fairly quick process. It uses existing diversions and existing pipelines so it's low cost power, and there's a lot of it that is in small pieces," added Lee, making conduit exemptions very low impact as well.
However, small hydro just doesn't stack up to big hydro in terms of sheer numbers. Since one MW of power is enough to power 1,000 homes, by definition, even the largest "small" hydro facility can only power up to 10,000 homes at its peak, since most states consider anything above 10 MW to be big hydro. In contrast, the Chief Joseph Dam upriver from Bridgeport, Wash. has a capacity of more than 2,500 MW, enough to power 2.5 million homes.
So if existing large hydropower facilities generate so much more power than small hydro, then why the push for small hydro?
How It Fits
Even though hydropower is technically a renewable resource - one that accounts for more than half of all renewable resources being used today in the United States - there is a political debate in many states whether to include hydropower to meet their Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).
Many states have passed laws pledging to produce a certain percentage of renewable electricity by a certain year. Montana's renewable energy standard is 15 percent renewable energy by 2015. Washington's goal is 15 percent by 2020 and Colorado's is 30 percent by 2020.
"If you were to allow existing hydropower to qualify as a renewable resource under the renewable portfolio standards law, then you wouldn't have to do much else, because there's so much of that already available," Harrison, information officer at Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said.
So lawmakers in many states have decided to count only new and small hydro as renewable.
"In other words, existing resources would meet so much of the requirement that there wouldn't be any need to build new ones," Harrison said.
Since most of the available locations for large hydropower dams have already been dammed, the focus for these bigger producers is to improve production and provide safe passage for fish.
More than 2,500 MW of power could be added by simply improving efficiencies at existing hydropower plants and adding hydro to nongenerating dams, such as those used for reservoirs or agricultural irrigation, according to the U.S. Hydropower Resource Assessment for Washington state in 1997.
The Bureau of Reclamation recently awarded $25 million to Andritz Hydro Corporation to overhaul all four hydropower turbines at Palisades Dam in Idaho.
"The old runners were the original ones - 50 years old," Karl Wirkus, regional director of the Pacific Northwest branch of the Bureau of Reclamation, said. "The new runners will help the facility produce power at its fullest potential," Wirkus said, which is 176.5 MW.
The Bureau is also doing a complete overhaul of the third power plant at Grand Coulee in Washington. Wirkus said the third power plant has the largest generators in the world.
Although large hydropower plants like this one generally aren't being built anymore, the Grand Coulee, Palisades and many other dams still provide for a majority of the renewable power in the west.
"And that's nice because many of these dams will last 100 years," Lee said, compared to wind and solar projects, "that's pretty good."
ABOUT THIS SERIES: Students from The University of Montana School of Journalism, with the help of American Public Media's Public Insight Network, reported and wrote stories for New West on the energy economy of the Rocky Mountain region. The project originated as part of the Green Thread initiative at UM.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs