the film
Commentaries and editorials

Lower Snake River Dam
Removal Has Two Sides

by Tom Owens
Orcasonian, March 24, 2022

J52 nicknamed 'Sonic', was a two and a half year old male born during the so-called Baby Boom of 2015/2016 -- is deceased, presumably from malnutrition. (by Gary Sutton) Removing the Snake River dams is a tough decision. It has two sides. Like many other issues we face, there are merits to both arguments. Hopefully, before final decisions and actions are taken, the public can gain a full understanding of both the positive impacts (more food for orcas) and the negative impacts (more pollution, less renewable energy and loss of barge transportation on the Snake).

The case for removing the four dams is food supply for the Southern Resident Orcas. This case rings true. Some very fine folks support removal so there is strong merit to this side of the issue. Sharon Grace makes this case in her article. These four dams are part of the Columbia and Snake River hydro systems which play important parts in the Pacific Northwest electric generation and transmission system. This system produces vast amounts of electric energy (total capacity is about 29,000 MW).

It is clean energy with respect to global warming.

Most of BPA's energy (and thus OPALCO's energy) is generated by this hydro system. This energy goes to public utilities (PUD's and Cooperatives) first, then private utilities (like Puget Power and PGE). At times, some is sold to utilities in the Southwest.

The impact of removing these four dams is, in fact, very significant. They have a maximum capacity to produce over 3,000 MW (when the river flows are high). This is about 10% of the entire hydro system's capacity. They have operated, on average, at a capacity of 1022 MW since construction. This is the size of a large nuclear plant. All four have fish ladders to allow fish passage.

These are "run of river" dams, meaning their outflows are about equal to their inflows. They have only limited storage capacity. However, upstream are two dams (Dworshak and Brownlee) with storage reservoirs. As energy is produced at the storage dams, water then flows downstream thru each of the four lower Snake River dams increasing the amount of electricity produced. This amplifies the effect of "storage" in the Snake River system.

The important question is, what is the impact of making up for the lost energy and the reduction of "storage" ability in the hydro system? Certainly, we can reduce our consumption of electric energy, but new demands are going in the opposite direction, especially for all those new EV's. We can rely on other fossil fuel generating sources (coal and natural gas), but this means more CO2 production. Solar and wind generation can be increased but this will require more, not less, energy storage if they are to be reliable energy sources.

The hydro system can serve as a giant battery. When there is excess solar and/or wind energy, this excess can be "stored" in the system's storage reservoirs. (At times this is limited, due to operating constraints, like fish conservation, flood control, navigation requirements). Storage is done by reducing the production of hydro-electricity (by reducing the release of water through hydro turbines) that would go to serve BPA loads and using the excess renewable energy (when it is available) for these loads instead. This tends to add reliability to the renewable resources. When more energy is needed, the stored water can be released.

If you produce solar energy at your home, OPALCO takes any surplus energy (like in the summer) and returns it to you in the winter. This is called NET Billing (which is currently a hot issue). To provide this service, OPALCO relies on BPA's ability to store this energy in its storage reservoirs. It is sure nice to get that summer solar power back in the wet, cloudy cold winter. But even BPA has limits.

OPALCO's mission, as our very own cooperative, includes delivery of reliable and affordable electricity. The Columbia and Snake River hydro systems provide this reliability and low-cost electric energy. Dam removal would impact OPALCO's mission. There are no easy answers. I am sure OPALCO is looking at both sides of the issue.

This is a tough tradeoff. A better chance of survival of the orcas on the one hand. More environmental problems caused by the reduction of energy and capacity on the hydro system. We all should understand both sides.

Tom Owens
Lower Snake River Dam Removal Has Two Sides
Orcasonian, March 24, 2022

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