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Let's Not Discuss Salmon in the Dark

by John Webster for the Editorial Board
Spokesman Review, March 14, 2000

Our View: This region's raging controversy concerning dams
misses a powerful issue that gets you right where you live.

If hot air could generate electricity, the Pacific Northwest's power shortage would be solved.

Power shortage? What power shortage?

Possibly, you haven't heard about it and that's understandable, given the gusts of rhetoric that swirl around proposals to save wild salmon runs by breaching hydroelectric dams.

The conversation about power supply is boring. It features electrical engineers pointing to statistical charts with such scintillating titles as "Hourly Reliability Duration Curve."

The conversation about dam breaching is a real gas. It features inflatable salmon, native American drummers and fond recollections of the good old days when homes had outhouses and the rivers ran thick with king-sized fish.

Between these two conversations there is a complete disconnect.

The engineers and their charts say our region needs to construct 2,800 megawatts of additional generating capacity. Soon.

The dam breachers want to shut off four dams on the Lower Snake River that produce an average output of 1,200 megawatts and a rated capacity of 3,000 megawatts. Other dams are controversial as well, such as John Day, with a capacity of 2,100 megawatts. (It takes roughly 1,000 megawatts to supply Seattle.)

So, on the one hand, we need more power. On the other hand, we're talking seriously about taking generators out of production.

What our region needs is a reality check.

One place to start is a report issued last week by the Northwest Power Planning Council concerning adequacy and reliability of our power supply. The report is on the web at

The report was drafted in response to concerns at the Bonneville Power Administration, whose forecasts indicated that this year our region could experience a power shortfall of 2,500 to 3,800 megawatts. The good news is, the power council concluded those forecasts overstated the problem.

The council concluded that under normal circumstances we might have enough power over the next few years. But everything depends on luck. A reliable generating system has to be sufficient when luck turns bad. In 1989, for example, luck turned bad, and we narrowly averted blackouts. Reservoirs were low, temperatures fell far below zero, a nuclear plant and a coal plant had to go off line, and there was a shutdown in an "intertie" important to our region's heavy dependence on imported power.

Power engineers try to keep the odds of blackouts very low. But the power council's analysis shows the odds have become uncomfortably high. In the real world, bad luck happens. So, we need more generating capacity.

The only viable source for large quantities of new power is natural gas turbines. Several turbine plants are in the works but completion is years away.

This leaves planners in a jam. They are talking about dropping reservoirs to generate emergency power -- although that could hurt fish. They are talking about whether big industrial users might pay extra for reliable power or shut down during a crisis.

Unfortunately, it isn't clear any agency has the clout to choose and enforce remedies. And the public is busy arguing about whether to make the problem worse.

Bottom line? Hope our luck holds.

John Webster, for the Editorial Board
Let's Not Discuss Salmon in the Dark
Spokesman Review, March 14, 2000

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