Pulling the Plugby Kevin Taylor
The Inlander, February 28, 2007
The music teacher gets a brilliant idea at his kitchen table and rushes down a flight of stairs to his basement, feet pounding a pell-mell cascade of bass notes. If he were to mark his stairs as if they were a section of musical score, it would read: fortissimo.
Reed Burkholder, a piano teacher in Boise, frequently rushes to his basement computer these days to analyze data kept by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about power production at four dams on the lower Snake River. His findings may re-energize arguments to remove the dams in order to aid endangered salmon runs in the river.
"These dams are completely unnecessary. You can pull the plug and nobody will miss it," Burkholder says.
The 60-year-old, who has a penchant for taking on difficult tasks, has assembled an astonishing series of graphs showing the lower Snake River dams tend to operate at one-third of their capacity, and that full capacity is often out of reach because of what Burkholder calls "low fuel" - that is, low river flows at times when power is in high demand.
The information, so far at least, has prompted a thoughtful and extended, days-long e-mail exchange between power-savvy staffers at Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and the Northwest Energy Coalition (NWEC) - two agencies that typically find themselves on opposite poles of charged rhetoric rather than in grounded, respectful discourse.
If nothing else comes from Burkholder's efforts, this alone has power.
John Taves of BPA, the federal agency that sells electricity from the dams, has been swapping thoughts with Steve Weiss, senior policy associate for NWEC, an alliance of about 100 environmental groups and utilities. Their e-mail debate is cc'd to other Northwest energy planners as well as an audience of "public interest constituents" who are not named. Taves, in his writing, tells the others that he is sharing their ideas and observations "with appropriate planning and operations staff."
Burkholder's findings, which he has only begun to share in the last month, essentially cast the complex of four dams (Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite) as producing far less power than people say - to the point of irrelevance, he says.
"I am not the one saying let's replace lower Snake River dams with wind and conservation - that's the Northwest Energy Coalition," says Burkholder. "I'm saying the energy produced is so low when we need it to be high that these dams really don't have a strong and important function."
In this he finds himself agreeing with Idaho Republican Sens. Larry Craig and Mike Crapo - although cheekily.
"When Senators Craig and Crapo say 'there will be severe economic impact if we lose this power,' I say we've already been there. This is insignificant power with an erratic fuel supply," Burkholder says.
Business and commercial groups, which advocate keeping the barriers in place, say the four dams, while built primarily for navigation, are important components of the Northwest's energy grid. For example, here's a statement from Terry Flores, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners (a coalition of river users and interests including regional utilities, businesses and agriculture), that has appeared frequently this winter in op-ed pieces in regional newspapers:
"The four Lower Snake dams have a generating capacity of 3,033 megawatts, enough to power the city of Seattle. Nor can this generation be replaced by wind and conservation. ... The clean, renewable power produced by these dams is vital to our growing region, and removing them would require building five new large coal plants or three nuclear plants."
Burkholder uses information available at the Corps of Engineers' data query site to conclude that the four dams more typically run at 1,000 megawatts, and are especially low producers of energy when demand is greatest - such as summer heat waves and winter cold fronts.
Scott Simms, a spokesman for BPA - and Taves in his e-mail conversations - warns that the regional power system can be vast, complex and confusing. Even Weiss of the NWEC notes that Burkholder's graphs are "anecdotal."
Yet these anecdotes are sparking a new level of debate. For the first time, BPA is saying in public that "Clearly, the lower Snake projects are operated primarily for short-term peaking purposes."
These are not, then, the monolithic "firm power" producers that would take five coal plants or three nuke plants to replace.
"Nobody's refuted my arguments yet," Burkholder says. "So I keep going."
The Power of Going Away
Burkholder spent 23 years away from the Northwest. He wasn't here for all the step-by-step, protest-by-protest, study-by-study progression of the four dams - the last major dams to be built in the region.
"I was here when the salmon runs were still bountiful," Burkholder says. "I was a 10-year-old kid at the Sunbeam Dam when a guy caught a chinook and put it in a little pool. It must have been 38 inches long.
"I remember going to the South Fork with Ricky Furness and his dad, and I remember hearing all this lore about catching all these fish and smoking them in a smoker with alder wood." Burkholder's memories describe an Idaho of not so long ago when everyday people looked forward to catching big salmon year after year.
He left for college in Ohio in 1965, went to grad school at the University of Kentucky, pursued odd jobs and a music career in the Midwest and in L.A. until 1988, then returned to Boise as a husband and father of young children. In 1991, he took his family camping up the South Fork.
"And there were no fish," he says. "I saw some Fish and Game guys running a fish trap and I asked, 'What happened to all the fish?' They were evasive and would only say 'The problem is downstream' but wouldn't tell me what the problem was.
"What I found out is they put in four big federal dams between the time I go to college and the time I get back, and we haven't had healthy salmon runs since. We haven't fished for wild salmon in Idaho in 28 years."
And for Burkholder, this simple snapshot observation - pow! - has sustained him through 15 years of a salmon restoration debate that has grown more vast and less clear, full of dirty political infighting, tugged and distorted by all sides, stuffed with money and studies and whirling with ever more gymnastic technical fixes that may not be actually helpful.
"Why didn't I take the blue pill?"
At Thanksgiving, Burkholder says, someone sent an e-mail bearing the message "an early present" and tipping him to a data query site that stores massive amounts of searchable information about the lower Snake River dams. It was a moment like the one when Neo chooses the red pill, and Burkholder has been in the Matrix ever since - only without the full-length leather dusters, the cool shades and all those machine pistols. Instead he pounds downstairs in a basement workshop where he has an ancient computer assembled from spare parts.
"Hey, it does what I ask of it," he says of the computer. And what he asks every day these last three months ("I have gone through three printer cartridges," he says) is to find the ins and outs of river flow, megawatt-hours and spills.
"I now have access to what these dams have been doing - every hour for the last 32 years - and they've been doing extraordinarily poorly for 32 years," Burkholder says.
He has a friend with an impressive technical background and database experience who, because of ties to national defense, wishes to remain anonymous. The friend has computers far more powerful than Burkholder's almost comical setup.
The two have charted 1,121,280 data-entry points - 32 years of hour-by-hour power generation from the four dams. The graphs show it is remarkable for the dams to come close to their maximum capacities.
They have charted hot-weather Augusts, when power from the dams could help with air conditioning. The charts show the dams operating at a combined output of less than 500 MW.
Burkholder, at his kitchen table in Boise, fans out charts of cold-weather months and arctic blasts, when the dams could help with heating. Again, the graphs show a trend of power generation at 1,000 MW to 1,200 MW.
When he factors in the fuel supply - that is, the amount of water running through the dams - it becomes clear, Burkholder says, that you can't just turn the knob up to crank out more power.
The Snake needs to be running at better than 100,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) for the dams to come close to full power generation. Outside of spring runoff or late-winter rain-on-snow events, the river is not often that full. In late summer and fall, for instance, the Snake can run at less than 12,000 cfs at Lower Granite, the farthest upstream. In winter it is frequently at 30,000 to 40,000 cfs.
By contrast, Burkholder has also found days in March when the river's blasting at 140,000-plus cfs, yet anywhere from 33,000 to 110,000 cfs is spilled past the dams. Power generation - at least for one day he's found (March 20, 1983) - was zero.
"What's going on?" he asks. "I suspect these guys don't have a market for it."
And his suspicions were confirmed last week by BPA's admission of "overgeneration conditions" where the amount of water exceeds the system's needs for power generation.
"And we lose Idaho salmon for that?" Burkholder asks.
BPA spokesman Scott Simms warns that Burkholder runs the risk of taking too simple a view.
"There has to be a sense of how this facility fits into a larger system," Simms says. "Mr. Burkholder, I don't know his history, but he may not be a power planner. There are a whole set of issues he's looking at in terms of power supply."
It's important, says Simms, to remember the difference between energy (what the dams crank out) and capacity (what they can crank out when needed). Replacing the dams would not only cost hundreds of millions (of dollars or megawatts); it would raise power rates, and replacement energy would likely be generated by fossil fuels.
Burkholder concedes the difference between output and capacity, but says the lower Snake River dams experience erratic flows.
"Here's December 1, 1994," he says, pulling out a graph. "It shows 16,600 cfs. December 1, 1995, is 111,700 [cfs]. January 1, 1996, is 178,606 - that was a month of flooding and rain across Idaho. January 1, 1997, it's 27,900. We have power plants that have erratic fuel."
Simms says this is too simple a conclusion, and indeed the Northwest power grid, which includes BPA, is complex, interconnected and dynamic. It can gallop around like a drunken horse.
On July 24, 2006 - known as That Hot Monday (or the Heat Storm) - the system nearly fried when faced with extended record heat waves from Canada to California and unexpectedly massive demands above normal. In addition, dams were constrained by spill requirements for salmon, lightning took down transmission lines, the No. 4 unit at the massive Colstrip coal power plant in Montana tripped out for six hours, then came back slowly and went out again.
"This was a Super Bowl event," Burkholder says, "and the Snake River dams didn't even suit up." He displays a chart showing generation at less than 500 MW that eventually spun up to 1,200 MW for the evening peak before dropping again.
"Does this look like a 3,500-megawatt power plant to you?" Burkholder asks. "No. It looks like a 1,000-megawatt power plant."
And 1,000 MW of power can be replaced by existing sources, he contends.
Taves, of the BPA, cautions it's never that simple. In his e-mails, he writes to NWEC's Weiss: "I always get a little leery when someone picks out a single example of historic operations (July 24, 2006) focusing on just a portion of the integrated system to make a point, because it can be misleading.
"There are numerous factors that determine how power dispatchers choose to operate various components of the system.... It may be that 1,240 MW was all that was needed from the lower Snake projects that afternoon, and we may have been depending on their reserve margin to support much of the rest of the system. I don't know that this was the case, but it's something to keep in mind."
Simms also says flow at the Snake River dams can be altered fairly swiftly by releasing water from upstream and filling the lower Snake's small reservoirs so the dams can run at peak power for about three hours.
During the July 24 heat storm, BPA power managers alerted the Department of Justice that they might have had to stop court-ordered salmon spills. It never came to that, though; thanks to fast-paced work and pre-positioning water in the Columbia the night before, the power needs for the West were met by a whisker.
"Don't tell me it's cheap"
"There is a myth hydro is powering us. It's just not true any more," says Burkholder.
He has researched the rise of coal, natural gas and biomass power plants (hey! that's Spokane's Waste-to-Energy facility) that pepper the region. Only half of the Northwest power supply comes from hydro any more, he says.
While some environmentalists argue about wind power and conservation to make up for the dams, Burkholder takes a more immediate, pragmatic view: Replace the power generated by the lower Snake River dams with existing natural gas-fired turbines.
"Every town, every city, every suburb in America has an adequate and reliable power system, and almost none of them are hydro," Burkholder says. "Across the country, all the smoothing, all the peaking is done with gas turbines."
He says that even Taves has agreed, in e-mails, that "when we talk about power replacement, the number we are talking about is 1,000 megawatts. My point is, fine, let's get 1,000 megawatts out of gas turbines.
Two 500 MW gas turbines in Hermiston, Ore., right on the Snake, are a case in point, Burkholder says. The plants are on a small footprint of about six acres each, counting outbuildings, he says, and could spin up quickly for peaking power. He suspects they would be used rarely enough that CO2 emissions would be minimal.
"But it takes 140 miles of footprint and the loss of salmon in Idaho to get that from the lower Snake dams. Wouldn't it be better for everybody if we got the 1,000 megawatts from a more benign technology?" he asks.
Burkholder years ago created a story stick from his children's Lego blocks to remind him of costs. He has written: "140 miles of river destroyed.
Destruction of 22 river communities. Violation of Indian treaties. Salmon endangerment. Opportunity lost in Idaho for $544 million in sport fishing for anadromous fish. 39 salmon canneries closed in Astoria, Ore. Marine nutrient deprivation in the entire Snake River basin."
"So when someone says how cheap the power is, or how cheap the barging is, I say 'Don't tell me it's cheap,'" Burkholder says.
"And I am also saying the harm per megawatt is extraordinarily high from those dams. That's the bottom line."
Utility Consultant Switches Sides by Kevin Taylor, The Inlander, February 28, 2007
BPA Claims Removing Dams could Cost $550M a Year Puget Sound Business Journal, March 2, 2007
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