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Power Shortage Sparks Questions

by Chris Mulick
Tri-City Herald, July 3, 2000

A small group of nuclear energy supporters gathered last week to marvel at the alarmingly high price of electricity in West Coast power markets, which they said at least partially illustrates the need for more power plants.

"The first thing that comes to mind are the clowns that want to tear out the dams," said Kennewick's John Boland.

Undoubtedly, opponents of dam breaching will use last week to point out the value of the four lower Snake River dams.

With the Northwest already short on energy after a Richland nuclear plant and three coal plants tripped off line, not having the Snake dams would have only furthered power supply problems, they'll say.

"I can see it being a real powerful spin tool," said Gary Saleba, a Bellevue-based energy consultant.

But analysts aren't so sure that should be such a compelling argument.

One of the greatest benefits of the Northwest's system of federal dams is its flexibility. Though the Snake dams, for example, produce about 1,000 megawatts of electricity on average, they can produce about 3,000 megawatts if there'senough water flowing through them.

That's enough to power three cities the size of Seattle.

But dam operators are in the collection stage this time of the year, holding water behind reservoirs to appease recreational boaters, saving it for power production in the winter and for assisting migrating fish.

Because of those needs, last week when the Northwest simply didn't have enough power to go around, the Snake dams were producing just 750 megawatts on average.

Even so, that's about twice what it takes to power the Tri-Cities. It's also 750 megawatts the Bonneville Power Administration, which sells all the power produced at the dams, didn't need to buy on the expensive electricity market. It may not have been able if it needed to.

"It would be very difficult to replace in this situation we're in now," BPA spokesman Perry Gruber said Thursday.

But it's not like the dams would disappear overnight, argued Mark Glyde, spokesman for the Northwest Energy Coalition, which supports dam breaching. There would be plenty of time to find replacement power.

Dick Watson, power planning director for the Northwest Power Planning Council, agreed.

"If we were to take the dams out, there would be some fairly clear market signals to replace that power, and there would be lead time to do it," he said.

Environmental advocates say the dams can be replaced, in part, through additional conservation and by building new environmentally friendly power plants such as wind farms.

"You can have a clear winner from our perspective," said Nancy Hirsh, a policy director for the coalition. "If energy prices continue to go up, it becomes much cheaper."

But analysts say conservation and new "renewable" power plants won't cut it by themselves. More likely, they would combine with the addition of new gas-fired power plants and the discovery of new flexibilities to help make ends meet.

Last week, for example, Bonneville reached an agreement with three aluminum plants it serves directly and curtailed their power supply Wednesday during hours of peak demand so their electricity could go elsewhere.

But while the dams' power supply may be replaceable, the impact on the regional transmission grid would be a problem that is continually understated, said Mike Warwick, who advises governments on energy issues for the Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit research corporation. Replacing the dams with new power plants could reduce the amount of energy able to move around the system.

"If those plants weren't located where those dams are, it would cause the transmission system to not perform at the level it does today," he said.

Related Pages:
Power Crisis Shorts Out Expectations
Power Switch Flips Priorities in Northwest
Investing in our energy future
Puget Sound Region on Brink of Blackouts
BPA puts squeeze on utilities

Chris Mulick
Power Shortage Sparks Questions
Tri-City Herald, July 3, 2000

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