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Commentaries and editorials

Science, Not Prejudice, Should be Basis of Policy
for Four Lower Snake River Dams

by Bill Eastlake
Idaho Statesman, September 17, 2007

There continues to be much confusion and misunderstanding - even among people in the utility sector - about the role played by the four Lower Snake River dams in meeting Northwest power demands and the actual costs of replacing the electricity they produce.

It's true that the dams' nameplate (maximum) generation capacity totals 3,400 megawatts. It's also true that, on average, the four dams produce about 1,075 megawatts of electricity - about what Seattle City Light customers use.

Those are impressive numbers, though not the critical ones. The first is almost irrelevant: 3,400 megawatts of generation from the four dams might be possible during a spring torrent. This is in no way a "peak capacity" number since the maximum generation could occur only during a "nonpeak" period -in the spring when demand is lowest.

The second figure, 1,075 average megawatts, is a truer measure of the dams' contribution to the Northwest grid. But due to the climatological reality referenced above and dams' minimal water-storage capability, the figure greatly overstates the value of that contribution. After a burst of productivity during the spring snowmelt, the dams' potential quickly dwindles. By winter, when Northwest residents need power the most, through late summer, when Southwest air-conditioning demand boosts the market price of power, the Lower Snake dams can be counted on for only 425 to 525 megawatts.

In other words, while the dams nominally produce enough electricity to meet 5 percent of the regional need, they supply less than 2 percent of the need when the power is most valuable. So while the dams' annual production roughly equals Seattle's consumption, that city's lights would go out for months at a time if it had to rely on those dams.

The Bonneville Power Administration markets the power from the Northwest's federal hydrosystem. When it came to calculating the power-replacement costs associated with removal of the four Lower Snake Rive dams - which most scientists agree is the surest means of recovering endangered Idaho salmon stocks - BPA chose 3,400 megawatts as its starting point.

Thus, it's no surprise that the federal agency arrived at the grossly inflated replacement-cost estimate, $400-$550 million per year, widely cited by dam-removal opponents.

BPA's estimate starkly contrasts with the one produced by analysts at NW Energy Coalition, the well-respected regional association of businesses, organizations and utilities that support clean energy and consumer protection. The coalition said replacing the electricity the dams actually provide with energy efficiency (90 percent) and wind power (10 percent) would cost $79 million to $179 million per year for 20 years, with zero increase in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Inexplicably, BPA based its analysis on replacing the dams' nameplate power with 3,400 megawatts of carbon-emitting natural gas-fired turbines, providing bushels of grist for the mills of longtime global warming skeptics who now employ climate change arguments in their fight against effective salmon restoration efforts.

Bonneville also forgot to subtract the revenues those turbines would produce from their gross costs. Nor did it consider the economic benefits a restored fishery would bring to the region BPA was set up to serve - benefits that could dwarf the extra energy costs.

The escalating debate over the costs (and benefits) of breaching and replacing the power from the four dams screams out for fresh, comprehensive analysis by researchers such as the Government Accounting Office and the National Academy of Sciences. No one should object to studies that will allow our leaders to make policy based on facts and science, rather than conjecture or prejudice.

Bill Eastlake of Boise taught economics at Boise State University, was an energy economist at IDWR, and recently retired from a position as Electricity Policy Adviser to the Idaho PUC commissioners.
Science, Not Prejudice, Should be Basis of Policy for Four Lower Snake River Dams
Idaho Statesman, September 17, 2007

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