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
By Rachel Dawson
“The vast disparity between the rich and the poor is, in large part, designed by the disparity between those who have electricity and those who scrape by on small quantities of juice or none at all.”
– Robert Bryce
Electricity is at the epicenter of modern life, yet rarely does the average person consider the complexities behind the power grid when a light is turned on. The advent of technology, fueled by electricity, has created an era of human prosperity unseen throughout the history of mankind. We can pick up our smartphones and call friends from across the world, cook meals on a stovetop, and pay for goods and services with electronic banking without a second thought.
Electricity has proven to be especially important during the COVID-19 outbreak. Governor Kate Brown issued an executive order on March 23, 2020 that directs Oregonians to stay at home, closing many businesses and requiring social distancing measures. Many who did not suddenly find themselves out of a job were forced to work remotely. These workers rely on the grid to power their computers and connect them to distant coworkers via video conferencing websites. If communities in Oregon were to face a major electricity blackout that lasted 3-4 days, the state would be paralyzed.
We take for granted the access we have to the cheap and abundant electricity available here in the United States, especially in the Northwest with hydroelectric dams. While we can study, work, and play at all hours of the day, millions around the world continue to live in the dark. Their lack of electricity inhibits children’s abilities to study at night and further their education. It threatens people’s health due to unclean water and cooking on open fires in homes.
Unfortunately, our access to cheap and reliable energy in the Northwest is at risk. Oregon’s only coal-fired power plant, located at Boardman, will be decommissioned at the end of 2020 due to an environmental lawsuit settled a decade ago. A second coal plant located in Centralia, Washington will also go dark this year; and a total of 4,800 MW of coal power will be taken off the Western Interconnection (the power grid that connects most western states with British Columbia and Alberta) over the next several years. Unfortunately, utilities seem to have no real plans for replacing those megawatts with firm power.
Former Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) Administrator Steve Wright stated that this “is pretty much unprecedented” and that “we are quite concerned about whether we have enough time to address this issue.”
Wright himself has experience dealing with inadequate electricity resources. He was in charge of BPA during the 2001 energy crisis when a drought significantly reduced power from hydroelectric dams and threatened rolling blackouts in the Northwest. To conserve power, BPA took back electricity previously sold to the aluminum industry. In doing so, BPA essentially shut down the aluminum industry in Oregon, putting 5,000 aluminum employees out of work.
This isn’t a future problem for our region: Oregon’s grid is at risk right now. Frank Afranji, the President of the Northwest Power Pool, stated in an Oregon House Interim Committee on Energy and Environment that brownouts in Oregon could occur starting in 2020 and “we have an urgent situation because of the capacity deficit. We really need to move expeditiously and come up with a solution.”
Afranji also stated that battery storage technology cannot bridge the gap between supply and demand.
The Power Pool is a voluntary organization that includes electric utilities from the Pacific Northwest, Alberta, and British Columbia, and it is focused on power planning in the Northwest. The Power Pool published a report on resource adequacy in 2019 that concluded:
- The region may begin to experience power shortages as soon as this year.
- By the mid-2020s, the region may face a capacity deficit of thousands of megawatts which may result in both extreme price volatility and unacceptable loss-of-load, or blackouts.
With more employees currently working from home and communicating electronically, utilities must ensure that our region has enough reliable electricity to meet current and future demand. State policymakers and utilities can, and should, do a number of things to prevent another crisis, including:
- Delaying the decommissioning of the Boardman Coal Plant until its principal owner, PGE, can replace the lost megawatts with reliable power; and
- Removing the state moratorium on nuclear power to allow Oregon to invest in reliable and carbon-free power.
The Northwest Power and Conservation Council stated that the 2001 crisis developed largely unnoticed over a number of years before striking the region. It is imperative that we are not caught flat-footed again.
Rachel Dawson is a Policy Analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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