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 email@example.com
By John A. Charles, Jr.
Portland politicians claim to be concerned about carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. That’s why so many of them support TriMet’s proposed 12-mile light rail line from Portland to Bridgeport Village near Tigard. They think it will reduce fossil fuel use.
Their assumptions are wrong.
According to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the project, energy used during construction of the rail project will equal 5.9 trillion Btu. Much of this will be in the form of fossil fuels needed to power the heavy equipment. Additional energy will be used to manufacture the rail cars, tracks, and overhead wires.
The EIS claims that the negative environmental consequences of construction will be made up by energy saved from operations of the train. However, the operational savings are so small it would take 61 years to mitigate the carbon dioxide emissions of construction.
2035 Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled and Energy Consumption
|Vehicle Type||Daily VMT – No build option||Million Btu/Day – No build option||Daily VMT
With Light Rail
With Light Rail
Source: Draft EIS, SW Corridor Project
Unfortunately, all of the light rail cars will need to be replaced before then. Building new cars will require more energy, resulting in additional CO2 emissions and a longer payback period.
Light rail is not a solution to a perceived climate change problem; it IS a climate change problem. Any further planning for the SW Corridor project should be terminated.
John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.
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By Justus Armstrong
The Oregon Department of Transportation recently published its Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the Oregon Passenger Rail Project, which plans to expand and improve passenger rail service between Eugene and Portland and increase Amtrak Cascades rail service from two to six round trips per day. Out of two potential build alternatives—Alternative 1, which would improve the existing Amtrak route, and Alternative 2, which would create a new route along Interstate 5 between Springfield and Oregon City—ODOT has identified Alternative 1 as the preferred alternative. Many are optimistic about improved passenger rail options, but Alternative 1 would include anywhere from $870 to $1,025 million in capital costs. Is the project worth such a high price?
One of the stated goals of the Passenger Rail plan is to implement a cost-effective project, but based on ODOT’s own testimony, it appears that Amtrak is actually becoming less cost-effective. In a 2017 Legislative report on passenger rail performance, ODOT reported that “[t]he gap between revenue and costs continues to increase.…It is likely the costs to operate the service will increase in the coming years.”
The EIS estimates that Alternative 1 would cost around $48 million a year in operations and maintenance costs—a sharp increase from the $17.75 million ODOT currently pays Amtrak annually to support the existing rail service. The EIS also admits that this is a conservative estimation based on the assumption that Amtrak payments will triple as the number of round trips triples. Currently, ODOT subsidizes each one-way Amtrak ride to the tune of about $118, and with the costs to operate Amtrak already rising, expanding an increasingly cost-ineffective service risks adding to an even greater burden on Oregon taxpayers.
On the other hand, if the improved passenger rail service were to achieve the 89 percent increase in ridership hoped for by 2035, ODOT’s subsidy would be distributed more broadly among an expected 646,000 annual rail passengers. Theoretically, this could help make ODOT’s investment more worthwhile.
More Amtrak passengers would mean more ticket revenue, lessening the gap between revenue and operating costs. However, ODOT’s ridership projections are largely based on the hope that population increases in the Willamette Valley “could result in unprecedented ridership increases.” In perspective, only 105,000 (less than 4%) of the Willamette Valley’s 2.8 million residents were riding Amtrak in 2015. Living up to the ridership goals in the EIS would require a significant shift in transportation choice towards intercity passenger rail not yet seen in Oregon.
The draft EIS does not include projections for expected revenues and fare recovery, so exact measures of cost effectiveness for the project are not yet nailed down. Unless fare recovery is significantly improved, Oregon will continue to lead the nation in passenger rail subsidies and triple already wasteful operating expenditures.
There is also the matter of the $1 billion in construction and design costs that would have to come from state and federal funds. ODOT’s passenger rail plans are likely motivated by prospects of broader eligibility for federal funding, but any advancements in rail service are bound to be a costly investment for Oregonians.
Public transportation expansions are often put forward as solutions to highway congestion. However, the EIS for the passenger rail project admits that neither build alternative would alleviate Oregon’s congestion issues, stating that the potential reduction in the number of vehicles on I-5 between Eugene and Portland “would not be significant enough to affect or improve congestion on I-5.” In fact, the EIS states that the project could even exacerbate congestion by increasing vehicle activity on surface streets near Amtrak stations. Expanding passenger rail service may benefit the small portion of the Willamette Valley population that uses Amtrak, but would do little to address Oregon’s broader transportation challenges.
Instead of expanding Amtrak rail service, ODOT could plan on gradually increasing the frequency of Thruway bus service over the next 20 years. The No Action alternative already includes plans to increase intercity bus service between Eugene and Portland to seven round trips per day, so why not focus on further increasing bus frequency rather than replacing it with a more costly rail alternative? That way, transportation service can be more flexibly adjusted to transportation demands without the same level of capital investment and heavy subsidies that expanding passenger rail would require.
Justus Armstrong is a Research Associate at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free-market public policy research organization.
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