New Renewables: Not What You Might Think

Hydro remains the region’s reliable source of carbon-free energy

In a recent opinion piece for the Oregonian, Wendy Gerlitz of the Northwest Energy Coalition (NWEC) opined that the region must choose between healthy populations of wild salmon and removing the Snake River dams. NWEC’s solution is to remove the dams and replace them with more energy conservation and new wind/solar projects. In reality, salmon and dams, including the Snake dams, are co-existing and thriving – good news for those who care about restoring salmon and reducing carbon emissions.

No matter how many times NWEC makes their assertion, it simply doesn’t change the fact that the Snake dams can’t be replaced by energy efficiency or new renewables. Top regional power planners at the NW Power and Conservation Council (Council) analyzed Snake dam removal in their Sixth Power Plan when NWEC first raised it years ago. The Council’s analysis found that even if all cost-effective energy efficiency available in the region was acquired, fossil fuel generation would still be needed to replace the energy and capacity lost from removing the Snake dams.

Ice Harbor Dam

Water is spilled through the spill gates at Ice Harbor Dam (left side) for safer fish passage while generating needed energy in the powerhouse simultaneously.

Bringing on new wind and solar doesn’t help either. The federal hydro system helps back up these resources now, but hydro has reached its limits. Tom Eckman, a recently retired top analyst from the Council, pointed out that developing new renewables requires building new gas plants to back them up, which does nothing to help with climate change. That’s the region’s “dirty little secret in the clean energy game,” Eckman noted.

This makes NWEC’s position even more mystifying:  for an organization that ostensibly cares about climate change, the Council concluded that removing the Snake dams with fossil fuel generation would add 3 to 4 million tons of carbon to our skies – every year.  In fact, removing the Snake dams is likely the single most damaging action the region could possibly take from a climate change perspective. Yet, Ms. Gerlitz says that it is dams that are creating a climate threat to salmon – pointing to last year’s hot temperatures and laying blame on the dams’ reservoirs.

Once again, this is entirely off-base.  The dams didn’t “do in” the sockeye last year, but Mother Nature did by hitting the Northwest with a combination of low flows and persistently record hot temperatures.  In fact, NOAA Fisheries’ “After Action” report on the tragic loss of sockeye last year concluded that the dams helped keep river temperatures cooler through most of the migration season. Interestingly, the Fraser River in British Columbia also has experienced severe sockeye population crashes some years – there just aren’t any dams to blame there.

So, how are the salmon doing?  This year, with more normal river conditions, the sockeye have returned in droves with 342,000 adults making their way above Bonneville Dam including Snake River sockeye.  Chinook returns have been good so far this season and nearly a million fall Chinook are forecasted to return, which is very good indeed.

Young salmon migrating downstream are doing well too. Looking at the federal dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers, survivals are high — averaging 97% percent or better at the dams. Operational changes also are helping speed young salmon on their way and new fish slides at the dams are making for a safer trip. One hundred percent survival is not possible even in a free flowing river.

Also overlooked are the multiple, critical benefits the Snake dams provide the region.  NWEC acknowledges they can be used to meet changes in energy demands almost instantaneously. Providing up to 2,650 megawatts of emergency energy to the transmission grid for five days, and a navigation and lock system which moves a variety of products producing over $3 billion in value are left off the list, among other benefits.

I welcome Ms. Gerlitz’ call for an “honest and thorough analysis” of Snake dam removal. The facts and analyses that have been done – exhaustively – over many years simply haven’t supported removal of the dams from a climate change, salmon restoration or economic perspective.  Let’s see if there is anything new to be learned. What I don’t expect to change are continued calls for removal of those dams from NWEC or other groups no matter the analysis or outcome.

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Richelle BeckNew Renewables: Not What You Might Think