What would Capt. Benjamin Bonneville think touring the Columbia River Basin today, a region he called impoverished? Since his 1830s treks through the territory much has changed. Today he'd see abundant energy production, about 400 dams and hundreds of swooshing wind turbines. He'd see massive farms irrigating crops with water from behind those dams. He might even see shimmering glints of light off the mirrored roofs of homes electrified by the sun. He'd find one dam carried his name.
A century after Bonneville, the New Deal arrived. It put Americans back to work and left the Pacific Northwest a region rich in renewable, affordable hydroelectric power. Electricity from the Columbia River helped the United States win World War II. Its energy powered shipyards, aluminum plants and the development of the atomic bomb. This water resource rejuvenated and continues to stimulate the region's economic growth while also providing flood protection and recreational opportunities for Northwest residents and visitors.
Formed in 1937, the Bonneville Power Administration distributes the power generated by the federal system of hydroelectric dams. In 1938, Clark County Grange members and local residents pushed an initiative onto the local ballot to authorize the formation of Public Utility District No. 1 of Clark County. The initiative soon passed, giving the county access to low-cost federal hydropower and the right to provide electric service to Clark County at no profit.
To promote its hydroelectric system and public power, the BPA hired Woody Guthrie in 1941. He traveled the region writing and recording the 26 songs in the "Columbia River Ballads," including "Roll On, Columbia," which is now the official folk song of Washington.
By Aug. 21, 1942, PUD No. 1, now known as Clark Public Utilities, was re-selling power purchased from the BPA federal hydropower system to its first customer, Air Reduction Company. Much of the electric system infrastructure in the county remained owned by Portland General Electric, the privately owned utility previously selling power in Southwest Washington. The newly formed PUD worked in those early years to arrange purchase of the existing system and acquire additional equipment.
Keeps costs down
The ongoing battle over public versus private ownership of electric utilities in Washington state began to settle in 1945 when a federal court valued PGE's Washington properties at $801,000, according to the book "BPA and the Struggle for Power at Cost" by Gene Tollefson. This ruling made way for local public utility districts to start purchasing the PGE equipment that year. Within three years, PUD No. 1 paid off its equipment and was delivering at-cost electricity to 22,000 customers.
While much of the nation still depends on coal to generate electricity, hydropower provides Washington with 60 percent of its needed energy. It accounts for 90 percent of the renewable energy for the region. Unlike coal and other nonrenewable fossil fuels, hydropower not only keeps our air clean, but shrinks our regional carbon footprint to nearly half that of other areas of the country.
That's why the Northwest has some of the most reliable and affordable energy resources in the nation. Although alternative energy sources are growing and add to our wealth of energy -- they are less reliable. Wind turbines can't turn without the wind and solar cells can't capture energy without sunshine. Hydropower helps to balance these intermittent resources and keep the lights on even when the air is still and the sky is gray.
After 75 years, Clark Public Utilities still delivers its customers reliable, affordable electricity generated by clean, renewable hydropower. For you and its other 184,000 residential, business and industrial customers, 60 percent of the utility's power supply comes from hydropower. This lowers your electric bill to 42 percent of the average rate paid by utility customers in other parts of the country.
In the 1830s, a rich, untapped resource lay hidden from Bonneville's critical eye. That unnoticed resource grew into our region's dependable and affordable hydroelectric power system — a precious resource that will sustain us for years to come.
Energy Adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.