The four Lower Snake River dams have impeded access to salmon’s historic spawning grounds for decades. Removing these dams is the best chance to help restore this vital salmon run, an important food source to the critically endangered Southern Resident orcas. In this week’s #MigrationNation, we’re sharing an op-ed from our partners in the Northwest Energy Coalition explaining how the Pacific Northwest can have salmon AND clean energy on a free-flowing Snake River, helping Southern Resident orcas and their habitat, too!
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We can restore salmon AND have carbon-free energy
By Nancy Hirsh, Executive Director
NW Energy Coalition
A recent newspaper report quoted the Bonneville Power Administration as saying that removing four Lower Snake dams in order to restore dwindling salmon populations and protect the Columbia River ecosystem would require the Northwest to build a carbon-emitting natural-gas-fired power plant in order to replace the lost hydro energy. In short, they were claiming that we can either protect salmon and the environment or we can have nonpolluting carbon-free energy, but we can’t have both.
This is exactly the kind of false choice that last May moved a federal court to find that BPA and other federal agencies failed to adequately consider viable options for restoring salmon including ones that can replace the electricity from these dams with carbon-free, clean and renewable energy.
The Northwest electricity grid has changed tremendously in the last 20 years. Building on our abundant hydropower resources, Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Montana have developed new renewable resources totaling more than 2,500 average megawatts (aMW) from wind, solar, geothermal and biomass energy with another 1,500 aMW under construction or in the final stages of approval. On top of this, we continue to make strong advances in conservation and energy efficiency saving more than 5,500 aMW of electricity over the years.
The four lower Snake River dams produce about 1,000 aMW of electricity each year, or about 5 percent of the Northwest’s supply. The claim that the only way we can replace this power is by building a new natural gas plant to burn fossil fuels is just not credible in light of the changing ways in which electricity needs are being met. Even as capacity from new renewables expands, the electric grid is evolving, and we’re becoming smarter about how we generate, consume, and manage electricity.
Despite dire predictions from skeptics, utilities and electricity system operators have successfully integrated new renewable resources and built energy efficiency equivalent to over a dozen natural gasfired plants. We are improving how we bundle wind and solar from different geographic areas to increase consistency of renewable energy contributions to system operations. And we are beginning to use energy markets to more efficiently utilize all the existing resources we have. Finally, the region is expanding a broad collection of energy efficiency, distributed clean renewables, energy storage and load management programs that make renewables even more reliable and affordable. In these ways and others, Northwest ingenuity has proven the skeptics wrong while also providing among the lowest electric rates in the nation.
By the time changes to the lower Snake River system are made, the portfolio of low carbon resources will be even more robust and more than able to meet the capacity and energy needs of the region. Meanwhile, the cost of new solar, wind, and other renewables is plunging, while the cost to maintain the aging dams is only going to increase.
That’s why two recent studies, one by the NW Energy Coalition and one by Rocky Mountain Econometrics, find that we can replace the power from the four lower Snake River dams at little additional cost to customers through new renewable energy, purchases of clean energy from existing sources, and smart planning and system coordination.
That is what BPA and the other federal agencies responsible for the lower Snake River dams will discover if they comply with the court’s order and prepare a thorough environmental impact statement that adequately considers viable options.
All of this is a part of building an integrated and modern electricity grid that meets customers’ needs, protects the environment and contributes our share to climate action. Our greatest asset is our ingenuity and ability to adapt. If we apply these skills to the challenge of providing carbon-free, clean energy, and restoring healthy salmon populations, we will secure a clean, reliable, and affordable energy future.
That’s why we emphatically do not have to choose between restoring the ancient cycle of salmon in the Northwest that is part of our region’s way of life and having low-carbon energy. We can and should have both.
The NW Energy Coalition is a 35-year-old alliance of 100 environmental, labor, civic, faith and human service organizations, progressive utilities and businesses in Idaho, Montana, Oregon Washington and British Columbia committed to a clean and affordable energy future.