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Dams, Wind, Power and Politics

by Editorial Board
The Oregonian, December 11, 2008

A stronger transmission system is a must for Bonneville. Who should lead the Bonneville Power Administration into a bold new era of green energy? Why not Steve Wright? Whenever a new president enters the White House and starts flipping switches, at least one sends a jolt surging out to the Bonneville Power Administration, the most important and far-reaching federal agency in the Northwest.

The political lines from Washington, D.C., to Portland already are crackling with speculation about how the BPA will change, and who will lead it, under President-elect Barack Obama. The public does not yet understand the implications of these questions, but the answers will affect every power bill, every business, every person, in the Northwest.

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer was the first of the region's elected leaders to muse out loud about the future of the BPA and its chief executive, Steve Wright. Last week, after a speech at the City Club of Portland, Blumenauer told The Oregonian's Jeff Mapes, "I'd be stunned if there isn't a change" at the agency. In a later conversation, Blumenauer said his focus is on changing the BPA's mission, not necessarily its administrator, having the agency lead the region, and the nation, on green energy.

Of course, there will be change at the BPA. The agency, and Wright, have worked for a White House that spent much of the past eight years denying the reality of climate change and moving slowly and reluctantly to embrace renewable energy. Obama and his strong choice for Energy Secretary, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, will set a very different course on national energy policy, and by extension, will put different demands and expectations on Bonneville and its executives.

But we'd caution against any rush to change the leadership at the BPA. Wright, a careeer BPA official appointed administrator by former President Clinton, and kept by President George W. Bush, is a talented executive who's done a fine job under difficult circumstances.

He's just led Bonneville through the long and delicate process of signing long-term contracts with all 135 of its customers, divvying up the low-cost electricity to utilities and industrial users for the next 20 years. He's forged an agreement on salmon recovery with Native American tribes, refereed a bitter dispute over how public and private utilities share BPA benefits and managed a large infusion of wind energy.

Critics claim that Wright and Bonneville have been obsessed with keeping rates low and have done more following than leading on renewable energy. That criticism isn't entirely fair, and ignores the reality of operating under the Bush energy policy. Does anyone believe that Bonneville, or any other federal power agency, could have spent the past several years leading a green power revolution?

Chu, who heads the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is a terrific choice for energy secretary. He's sought to make the Lawrence lab "the world leader in alternative and renewable energy research, particularly the development of carbon-neutral sources of energy."

We, too, want Bonneville to become an international leader on green energy, a place where the latest energy research is turned into reality. Wright, for his part, says he's eager to meet with Chu, the new energy secretary, in the coming months to discuss Bonneville's role in carrying out new energy policies.

The Northwest, like the rest of the country, is hungry for dramatic change on energy. But there should be no rush to make changes in the leadership at the BPA. The agency has been in capable hands. And it still is.

Editorial Board
Dams, Wind, Power and Politics
The Oregonian, December 11, 2008

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