In the debate over the survival of endangered Columbia River salmon and the sustainability of dams in the Pacific Northwest, a new study suggests four hydroelectric dams on the Lower Snake River in Eastern Washington could be removed and effectively replaced with clean energy resources at little cost to taxpayers.
“Although the subject matter is really complicated, the story is really pretty simple,” said Sean O’Leary of the NW Energy Coalition, the clean energy advocacy group that commissioned the study. “For years, this problem has been presented as a dilemma: We can have fish restoration or reliable power — we can’t have both. But this study demonstrates that’s false.”
The Lower Snake River Dams Power Replacement Study concludes that balanced portfolios of solar and wind energy production, combined with energy efficiency and storage, can replace the power provided to the Northwest by the four Lower Snake dams and at a cost of about $1.28 per month for residential customers in the year 2026.
The study also claims no new natural gas power plants are needed to meet regional energy demands. “Replacing the dams with clean and renewable resources provides superior or equal results to replacing them with natural gas for cost, carbon emissions, system reliability, and ability to meet peak load requirements,” states a fact sheet on the study.
However, existing gas facilities would play a role in the power portfolios. Also, while the study addressed energy production, it didn’t address the shipping of goods the dams enable.
The study points out that more cost-effective and more environmentally efficient outcomes than what the researchers found are possible. The people behind the study didn’t look for the optimal mix of clean energy replacement resources.
It also claims employing clean energy resources would have “minor impacts on greenhouse gas emissions,” but “substantial emission reductions can be achieved” if they’re combined with regional emission reduction policies, such as those recently considered by the Washington Legislature.
The yearlong study was conducted by Energy Strategies, an independent consulting firm with a client list ranging from oil companies to transmission line developers and government agencies, using data from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, ColumbiaGrid and the Western Electricity Coordinating Council.
The study comes in a period when agencies tasked with operating and maintaining the Columbia River hydropower system are under a federal court order to draft a new Federal Columbia River Biological Opinion and a full National Environmental Policy Act analysis that considers the costs and benefits of several alternatives, from making no changes to removing all four Lower Snake River dams.
The four dams on the Lower Snake River produce about 4 percent of the Pacific Northwest’s electricity.
In 2016, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon of Oregon ruled plans drafted by federal agencies, tribes and states to operate Columbia and Snake River dams while restoring salmon populations, still don’t adequately support endangered fish recovery. Despite the millions of dollars spent to restore salmon habitat on the Lower Snake River, salmon populations throughout the Columbia River Basin have continued to struggle.
“The study is really important because it dispels this myth that the Bonneville Power Administration and Northwest River Partners and other organizations have put out there to stymie discussion of Snake River Dam removal,” said Miles Johnson, an attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper.
However, he cautioned that the study is not a policy prescription, but rather an experiment about what is feasible.
Joseph Bogaard of Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition celebrated the study as evidence clean energy and fish can co-exist without the need of the four dams.
“Scientists have told us for decades that removing the lower Snake River dams is the most effective — and likely only — way to protect endangered wild salmon and steelhead from extinction,” he wrote in a statement. “For 25 years, our government has wasted public money on convoluted efforts more designed to protect status quo dam operations than the wild salmon and steelhead populations headed toward extinction today.”
Mike Hansen, a spokesman for the BPA, said Tuesday that the agency would consider it in its work for meeting the court’s requirements.
“We’ve seen a draft and are aware of the report,” he said. “We have passed it on to those who are working on the (Columbia River System Operation Environmental Impact Statement) to have it be part of their analysis.”
A draft of the document is expected to be released in 2020.
Some in Congress have tried to prevent the breaching of the four dams by putting forth legislation that would keep the current biological opinion in place until 2022.
In February, U.S. Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, and Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, criticized Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, among others, in a letter for opposing their bill that would prevent the four Lower Snake dams from being breached. They and three other congressional Republicans and one Democrat support a bill that would maintain existing dam operations until at least 2022.
Meanwhile, Murray and two House Democrats from Seattle want an environmental study to examine salmon recovery solutions, including the possibility of breaching one or more of the dams to support fish migration.
“It’s unthinkable that Seattle Democrats are putting politics over science when it comes to improving fish recovery efforts,” Newhouse, McMorris Rodgers and Herrera Beutler said in a release. “Millions of dollars have been spent studying these dams and improvements have been made to improve fish survival rates.”