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Clark Public Utilities signs deal to buy 10% of its energy from Eastern Washington dam

By , Columbian staff writer
Updated: November 25, 2022, 7:51am
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In order to meet the state's clean energy regulations, Clark Public Utilities has partnered up with Pend Oreille Public Utility District to acquire hydropower from the Box Canyon Dam in Eastern Washington.
In order to meet the state's clean energy regulations, Clark Public Utilities has partnered up with Pend Oreille Public Utility District to acquire hydropower from the Box Canyon Dam in Eastern Washington. (Rob Lohr/Pend Oreille Public Utility District) Photo Gallery

More than 400 miles from Vancouver in a narrow canyon near Washington’s Canadian border, turbines spin at the Box Canyon Dam, creating energy that once powered a nearby paper mill.

Soon, however, that energy will power homes and businesses in Clark County.

Clark Public Utilities signed a contract with the Pend Oreille Public Utility District to acquire all of the energy produced by the dam from Jan. 1, 2026 to December 2041; It produces about 50 megawatts of generation each year.

The dam will supply about 10 percent of Clark Public Utilities’ total energy load. The utility expects it to be especially important during the summer and winter when energy demand is high and renewable sources like wind and solar aren’t producing strongly.

The two utilities’ board of commissioners both agreed to the energy sale in October.

“This is a very significant part of the energy portfolio we are putting together to decarbonize our energy supply,” said Dameon Pesanti, media specialist at Clark Public Utilities.

Washington’s 2019 Clean Energy Transformation Act requires utilities to significantly reduce their carbon emissions and eventually run completely on clean energy. Clark Public Utilities must be greenhouse gas neutral, with 80 percent of the utility’s load from nonemitting resources. By 2045, the utility must sell 100 percent clean energy.

“This dam is particularly important because this is power that is immediately available from an already existing hydro project,” Pesanti said.

A challenge in meeting clean energy regulations is not necessarily in the building of new projects but in getting them connected to the grid. Between supply chain issues, permitting and the transmission corridor right of way, that process is many years in the making. With the utility having to cut its emissions significantly by 2030, finding a source that is already connected to the grid is key.

“We can get that power supply here very quickly,” Pesanti said.

As part of the deal, Clark Public Utilities agreed to pay the forecast dam operating costs and debt service payments, including those associated with the dam’s modernization and the environmental mitigation modifications that Pend Oreille committed to during its most recent relicensing process.

“This is truly a win-win situation,” said Pesanti, adding that the agreement is a continuation of the long history of collaboration and cooperation between utilities.

Pend Oreille PUD searched for a long-term customer for the dam, which previously supported the now-defunct Ponderay Newsprint Co. and for a time was set to power a massive cryptocurrency operation before that deal fell through.

“The agreement sets the PUD up for long-term financial stability, ensuring forecasted Box Canyon costs are paid by a creditworthy and trustworthy public power partner that is also willing to pay for the dam’s carbon-free attributes,” said Colin Willenbrock, the utility’s general manager, in a statement to the press.

The Box Canyon Dam in Washington’s Pend Oreille County was built in 1956 along the Pend Oreille River. It is a tributary of the Columbia River, and it is not home to migratory salmon or steelhead since the construction of the Grand Coulee Dam.

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