By Rachel Dawson
Recent blackouts in California have demonstrated the need for reliable and affordable power. Contributing to these blackouts were sudden drops in solar and wind power, as well as unavailable spare electricity from neighboring states who were also experiencing extreme heat.
To keep blackouts at bay, our region needs to continue investing in reliable power resources, such as carbon-free hydropower which makes up 45% of electricity used in Oregon.
Unfortunately, hydropower continues to come under attack by proponents of “renewable” energy sources other than hydro. Oregon Governor Kate Brown has supported removing, or breaching, the Lower Snake River Dams operated by Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in a letter sent to Washington’s Governor Inslee. However, the recently released Columbia River System Operations Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) shows that breaching the dams will put us one step closer to facing our own blackout.
The EIS studied how operating the Columbia and Snake River dams will affect factors like fish populations, power supply, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The preferred alternative would not breach the dams and instead would utilize a flexible spill operation for fish passage that would spill more water at times when hydropower is not valuable to meeting demand. Under this alternative, Snake River chinook and steelhead are both expected to improve their smolt-to-adult return ratio.
Increasing fish populations is the primary reason environmental groups want to breach the dams. However, billions of dollars have already been invested in safety features to improve fish populations. According to NOAA Fisheries, we are now “close to achieving, or have already achieved, the juvenile dam passage survival objective of 96 percent for yearling Chinook salmon and steelhead migrants;” and the average number of salmon “passing Lower Granite Dam over the last ten years was the highest total of the last five decades.”
Peter Kareiva, the director of UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, has stated that while the “dams have caused salmon declines…the operators of the dams have spent billions of dollars to improve the safety of their dams for salmon, and it is not certain the dams now cause higher mortality than would arise in a free-flowing river.”
By increasing the number of “spills” in the preferred alternative, hydropower generation on the river would decrease by 210 aMW with average water supply. This is estimated to raise electricity rates by 2.7% and increase GHG emissions by around 1.5%.
It is vital that we protect Oregon’s hydropower supply, especially now when other baseload resources like coal are increasingly being retired. Unlike solar and wind, hydroelectric dams produce power at all times of the day, making hydropower a great baseload power source for our region.
If hydropower is reduced, we will need another baseload source to fill the gap it leaves behind. Typically, that role falls on natural gas or coal, explaining why GHG emissions are expected to rise if BPA decreases hydropower output in the future.
According to the Columbia River System Operations EIS, energy alternatives that include breaching the dams will increase both BPA’s wholesale power rates and the risk of power outages.
For example, breaching four lower Snake River dams would decrease hydropower generation by around 1,100 aMW of power. This would double the region’s risk of blackouts, increase wholesale power rates by up to 9.6%, and increase power related GHG emissions by up to 9% if the dams are replaced by natural gas plants. Replacing the dams with other renewable sources paired with batteries is estimated to cost $800 million every year, resulting in a 25% increase in ratepayer bills.
Oregon isn’t immune to threats of blackouts. Officials warn we may face a capacity deficit of thousands of megawatts due to planned coal plant closures, which may result in both extreme price volatility and blackouts by the mid-2020s. PGE is closing Oregon’s only coal plant in five months and will be relying on hydropower contracts to make up the difference at a time when our own Governor’s stance is using less hydropower. The power provided by BPA’s dams is vital if we want to avoid the power shortages experienced by California. Governor Brown should rescind her previous statement and support the continued use of the Snake River hydroelectric dams.
Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at the Portland-based Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Oregon’s Business Community Is Challenging the $7.8 Billion Measure
By Vlad Yurlov
After years of planning, revising, and negotiating Metro’s transportation funding plan, the region’s business community has had enough. Last month, several tri-county chambers of commerce sent a letter to the Metro Council urging a delay on the measure, because of the COVID-19 epidemic.
Metro spent years finding ways to spend money on transportation projects, while spending about two months figuring out how to pay for it. They only settled on a payroll tax because polling was good.
But, Metro’s polling was from May, when much of the county was hopeful the pandemic would be over by the start of school. Instead, the economy has crashed with businesses closing, workers losing their jobs, and thousands of families struggling to pay their bills. For many households, Metro’s plan to create a permanent payroll tax costing $500 a year for the average worker reflects bad timing, if not poor judgment.
Metro Council President Lynn Peterson claims the spending will create jobs, reduce pollution, prepare the region for growth, and advance racial justice. But such claims require extraordinary evidence.
The plan will not “create” thousands of jobs. Metro President Peterson falls for the fallacy that spending more money creates more jobs. In fact, Metro’s payroll tax will reduce take-home pay and kill jobs. Research shows that workers pay the price of a payroll tax, with low-skilled workers suffering the most. Even the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Green Line extension states that “net employment change in the corridor and region over the long term…would likely be negligible.”
The plan will not “advance” racial justice. Metro admits the Southwest Corridor light rail line will displace hundreds of residents and businesses, many of whom are from minority and low-income communities. While strategies to reduce the impact have been discussed, communities of color will be forced to uproot their lives because of these projects.
Finally, the plan will not “reduce” pollution. Climate Solutions and Oregon Environmental Council expect that the measure’s projects would only reduce emissions by less than one-tenth of one percent per year.
The plan will not “transform” its key corridors. Most of the projects involve minor improvements such as adding lighting and mending sidewalks, as well as improved lights and access improvements.
The plan will not “prepare” the region for growth. Many of the new amenities will likely inhibit new commuters travelling between work, home, and leisure destinations, because most of the projects are designed to make congestion worse.
The Council President’s letters tried to cut deals with the business community. She offered a reduction of the payroll tax, on the condition that the Portland Business Alliance doesn’t campaign against the measure and lobbies Oregon’s legislature to recoup the losses. This was quickly rejected. Instead, Metro carved out local governments from the tax, right before the referral vote. This 11% loss further burdens businesses and residents.
Willamette Week reported that the Metro Council remains “undaunted.” The business community then filed a ballot title challenge arguing that Metro’s wording was unfair in using the phrase “business tax” rather than a “wage-based payroll tax.” While Metro employees use the term “payroll tax,” it was recharacterized as a business tax after realizing how unpopular the phrase sounds during a time when many firms can’t make payroll and so many families aren’t getting paid.
A large part of the push for the measure on the ballot is Lynn Peterson’s chase for federal funding, which she believes will run out if voters don’t approve the measure. Additionally, Lynn Peterson is suspected to be eyeing a run for Oregon governor. This means that this measure’s rush may not be out of preparedness, but of an eager Council looking to grab federal dollars, even if it means that our own tax rates will skyrocket, and personal gain.
Metro’s transportation measure would cripple the region’s COVID-19 recovery, because the payroll tax that funds it diverts development away from businesses that create wealth and into projects that merely move it around. This transportation bond measure will not allow the tri-county area to “Get Moving.” Residents and businesses will have to freeze in place to survive an additional payroll tax for another unsustainable gamble.
Vlad Yurlov is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization. He has closely followed Metro’s transportation bond and is currently researching its history and impacts.