Washington View: Foreign powers wake to benefits of hydropower

By Don Brunell, Columbian business commentator

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When Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942, it was called the "Eighth Wonder of the Modern World." With its 151-mile-long reservoir and ability to produce 6,809 megawatts of electricity, no one could imagine a bigger or more powerful dam -- and no one realized the scope of economic development that low-cost, reliable hydropower would create.

Actually someone did. China.

This year, China completed its gargantuan Three Gorges hydroelectric project with triple the power generation of Grand Coulee. The controversial project is the largest dam in the world. The Chinese government defends it and other proposed hydro projects as critical to curbing disastrous flooding on the Yangtze River and generating electricity needed to power China's economic growth.

New mega-dams are also planned on the Amazon and Mekong rivers.

Renaissance of sorts

What's behind this renaissance of hydropower?

First, hydropower produces no greenhouse gases and generates large amounts of electricity in one spot.

The electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam is equivalent to the output of 15 nuclear reactors. The comparison to wind and solar power is even more striking. It takes thousands of acres of wind turbines and solar panels to produce an equivalent stable supply of electricity, that generation occurs only when the wind blows or the sun shines.

Second, electricity powers manufacturing, which, in turn, creates economic growth and family-wage jobs. Like wind and solar, it is clean energy, but it is more reliable because water is stored behind the dams, available for use on demand.

In Peru, former President Alan Garcia said his country can increase its electricity generation eightfold by harnessing the tributaries to the Amazon River. In turn, Peru would use the power to expand its manufacturing and agriculture base, and export a big chunk of that electricity to neighboring Brazil and Chile.

Peru is one of the world's fastest-growing economies, averaging 6 percent GDP growth since the turn of the century. Garcia's plan is to use energy, particularly electricity, to diversify its economy, spur investments in manufacturing, create jobs and increase wages.

Halfway across the world, the Laotian government is proposing a network of 11 dams on the lower Mekong River, similar to our Columbia and Snake River hydroelectric network.

China already has dams along the upper Mekong and is building more.

Laos' centerpiece is the mammoth and controversial 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi dam on the lower reaches of the Mekong River. Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam say the dam violates a 1995 treaty for shared use and management of the Mekong River basin. Still, Laos is pushing ahead because of the dam's potential to spur economic growth.

Back at home …

We often overlook the importance of hydropower in our state. Roughly three-quarters of our electricity comes from our dams. Low-cost, reliable hydropower is the foundation of our state's manufacturing sector, and it heats and lights schools, hospitals, nursing homes, office buildings and houses throughout the state. In fact, our hydropower advantage offsets other higher costs in Washington.

Even so, some people say we should remove the dams, particularly the four dams on the lower Snake River. But those dams are integral to our river transportation system, and they produce the electricity that pumps irrigation water into Eastern Washington vineyards, orchards and fields. Removing them will cripple our economy and kill jobs.

Unlike the controversial Xayaburi and Three Gorges dams, our Columbia-Snake network did not cover millions of acres of farmlands and forest, nor did they displace millions of people. Throughout the years, we have learned to balance fisheries, flood control, power production, transportation and irrigation needs.

We should realize that we have what the rest of the world is seeking: a reliable source of clean, affordable, renewable energy.

Don Brunell is president of the Association of Washington Business, Washington state's chamber of commerce. Visit Association of Washington Business.