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For a Renewable Power Grid,
Snake River Dams Can't Go Away

by Patti Chappel and Kyle Roadman
The Register-Guard, July 17, 2022

With thermal resources out of the mix, hydroelectric generation
is essential to performing this balancing function.

Graphic: Survival of juvenile salmon from the Washington/Idaho border to beyond Bonneville Dam has averaged around 50% survival.  In other words, half of them die while migrating through the federal hydropower system. On June 9, Washington Sen. Patty Murray and Gov. Jay Inslee released a draft report on breaching the four hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River. The report attempts to show how the many benefits of these dams -- most notably, cheap, clean electricity for Northwest consumers -- can be replaced and at what cost. Unfortunately, it also dramatically undersells the role these dams play in ensuring a reliable and renewable electrical grid.

As stewards of a publicly owned utility in this region, we'd like to point out the practical impacts of breaching these dams. Advocates for doing so would have you believe there are viable options for replacing the power services they provide. This is simply not the case.

This conversation is happening at a time when the Western electricity grid is undergoing dramatic change. De-carbonization policies have resulted in a rapid build out of renewable power resources and a simultaneous ramp down in thermal generation (coal and natural gas). On the demand side, electrification initiatives are increasing the need for new resources to power transportation, building heating, and other industrial processes.

On the surface, these developments would seem to go hand-and-hand. And, indeed, our society appears well on its way to electrifying new sectors with a low carbon power supply. The challenge lies in how to keep the lights on during the transition.

Today, the Western grid is already subject to "scarcity events" during times of peak demand (e.g., sub-freezing temperatures in the winter or last summer's "heat dome"). During these events, the supply of electricity is severely limited and market prices can multiply exponentially. Blackouts have occurred in some unfortunate cases in California. This strain on the grid has demonstrated that the risk of a major supply failure is the highest it's been since the Western Energy Crisis 20 years ago.

And this leads us back to the lower Snake River dams. For more than 80 years, the Northwest has been fortunate to have a low-cost, renewable hydroelectric system as the backbone of our power supply. In fact, these dams have long allowed utilities like ours to charge among the very lowest electricity rates in the nation.

Beyond cost, however, the dams serve a critical function in helping to balance supply and demand. Although renewable resources such as wind and solar certainly have a place, their intermittent nature prevents them from ever running the grid on their own. Crucially, these resources must be constantly backed up when the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine. With thermal resources out of the mix, hydroelectric generation is essential to performing this balancing function.

We need only look at recent history to see the value of these hydroelectric resources. The Northwest experienced significant weather events between 2019-2021, most notably last summer's heat dome. During these events, the region ensured grid reliability even when in-region thermal generation was tapped out.

How did we do it? A combination of energy imported from outside the region and the ability to call on hydroelectric generation. Specifically, the thousands of megawatts of capacity available from the lower Snake River dams. Take this offline and we would have seen major price spikes passed along to consumers and potentially even supply disruptions. With extreme temperatures threatening the most vulnerable of our fellow citizens, this truly does become a matter of life and death.

We support the transition to a carbon-free electricity grid, but there is no realistic way to get there without our existing hydroelectric system. In addition to providing cheap, carbon-free energy, it remains our best option for integrating other renewables. And while future technologies such as battery storage or hydrogen have promise, they are simply not ready to match the flexibility and cost-effectiveness of our existing hydroelectric facilities.

Those who have looked honestly at removing the four lower Snake River dams have all reached the same conclusion. Taking this action at a time when the grid is already at a point of scarcity will result in higher prices, lower reliability and less renewable energy on the grid. Let's not go down this road.

Patti Chappel is the board president of Emerald People's Utility District, a consumer-owned utility serving rural Lane County.
Kyle Roadman is the utility's general manager.
For a Renewable Power Grid, Snake River Dams Can't Go Away
The Register-Guard, July 17, 2022

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