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Power Council Report Fuels Breaching Debate

by Eric Barker
Lewiston Tribune, March 21, 2010

Dam breaching advocates insist electricity bills won't go up all that much

The Northwest Power and Conservation Council analyzed how breaching the four Lower Snake River dams would affect the region's supply of electrical power.

In the analysis, it was found that the 1,100 average megawatts of electricity the dams provide to the power system could likely be replaced by renewables as well as natural gas generation and coal- fired plants. Doing so would increase emissions of greenhouse gases by about 3 million tons per year and the Bonneville Power Administration would have less power to sell on the open market during times of high river flow.

Salmon advocates, including the Nez Perce Tribe, state of Oregon and environmental groups, advocate breaching the dams as the best way to recover threatened and endangered Snake River salmon and steelhead. The dams provide about 5 percent of the electricity marketed by the Bonneville Power Administration as well as barge transportation and some irrigation.

Because of the lost generating capability, costs of the power system would increase by $530 million each year. Utilities that receive power from the Bonne-ville Power Administration would see higher rates. According to the analysis, Bonneville's wholesale rates would climb by as much as 24 percent to 29 percent.

Although that seems high, some advocates of dam removal say the effect on electrical users bills would be much smaller, in the 2 percent to 4 percent range. Part of the explanation is the region is expected to gain electricity capacity through conservation. With or without dam breaching, rates will rise but, because the amount of power used by customers will be reduced, bills will stay the same or decrease and carbon emissions will fall, according to the analysis. If dams are breached, carbon emissions will be reduced but not as much as leaving the dams in place. Bills paid by electricity users would also drop, but not as much as they would if the dams were not breached.

"Because we are building our load growth with mostly conservation rather than expensive new generation, it doesn't cost us as much as we think," said Steve Weiss of the Northwest Energy Coalition that supports breaching the four Lower Snake River dams. "You can eliminate half the coal and the Lower Snake River dams and still have rates and bills stay roughly where they are. That is good news, we are saving so much money with all this conservation that doing these pretty drastic things don't hurt the consumer and the economy very much and having all these fish in the river would be pretty nice for the economy."

Weiss said the dams also tend to generate the most electricity in the spring when rivers are swelled with runoff. That tends to be a time of year when demand for power is also low. When demand is high in the winter and summer, the Snake River dams are not running at peak capacity.

"To us these results show we don't have to break the bank to meet a lot of our goals - our fish goals, our global-warming goals. We don't have to build much stuff and rates don't go up as much. This is really super."

Dam supporters point out there are many more costs associated with dam breaching than just replacing lost power generation. They point out that carbon emissions would be greater without the dams and the system would be less reliable. Hydroelectric dams do not emit carbon. Replacing power by the dams would most likely be done with more natural gas and coal.

"If the dams come out you have to replace a zero-carbon resource with something," said John Harrison, a spokesman for the power and conservation council at Portland. "A lot can be from conservation and renewables but a lot of it has to be from fossil fuels."

Harrison said analysis is an interesting academic exercise but the council doesn't think the dams are coming out anytime soon.

"We did that model because we were asked to and we thought it was important to include," said John Harrison of Portland. "We didn't do it because we advocate that or think it's a possibility. We did it for a modeling exercise."

Related Pages:
Energy Efficiency: The Key to Our Clean Energy Future by Sara Patton, The Oregonian, 3/5/10
Conservation is Cheapest Option by Eric Barker, Lewiston Tribune, 3/21/10

Eric Barker
Power Council Report Fuels Breaching Debate
Lewiston Tribune, March 21, 2010

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