nwrp runoff aug 2022

Runoff | August ’22

Welcome to Runoff; the renewable energy blog that isn’t afraid to tackle some renewable energy math! Well, we’re not afraid to write about it, but we’ll leave the number crunching to the experts that you’ll read about later on. Each month, we capture the region’s most important hydropower news and give you our take on it, along with some more lighthearted and interesting segments along the way.

Hydropower round-up

Dam politics…

For those who say life is a marathon, not a sprint, we offer a hydropower corollary: Political activity around the lower Snake River dams is a marathon, where you have to sprint the whole way or get left behind.

In early July, Senator Patty Murray and Governor Jay Inslee’s “Joint Federal-State Process” concluded its public comment period following the release of the draft report. The timeline for the final report, originally scheduled for mid-July, has been pushed back with to “Summer 2022.” It is speculated that an August release is most likely, sometime after Washington state’s primary election. After the report is finalized, Senator Murray and Governor Inslee are expected to make a recommendation regarding the future of the dams.

However, politics around the dams is not at all limited to Washington state. The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) has taken on a role as an advocate for dam removal.

In early July, the Bonneville Power Administration was set to release the lower Snake River dams cost replacement study (more on that later) it commissioned from energy analytics group, E3. That release was then delayed until CEQ could first release an opinion paper from NOAA Fisheries stating that one or more of the lower Snake River dams should be removed.

It’s notable that the NOAA Fisheries paper heavily relied on input from groups that are engaged in political activities to have the dams removed and did not engage with fisheries biologists that might have held differing opinions.

Meanwhile, the debate over the dams has extended into the Water Resources Development Act in Congress. This act governs the studies that the US Army Corps of Engineers will conduct. Before Congress could possibly vote to deauthorize the federal dams, the Corps would first have to conduct a dam removal study, so there has been a lot of jostling on in both the House and the Senate over whether the bill would include such language. At the time of writing, there isn’t a provision to fund a dam removal study, but because the House and Senate versions of the bill are different, they will go to conference to work out the details behind closed doors.

Our take:

  • We are disappointed by the evident biases and preference for dam breaching outcomes displayed in some of these more recent political moves. That is why we are working harder than ever to counter these narratives by educating the public and policymakers.
  • The draft report had many errors and mischaracterizations that we hope will be corrected in the final version. For that, the next bullet point deserves your attention…
  • There has likely never been a more crucial moment to make your voice heard about the importance of the lower Snake River dams. There is still time to reach out to Senator Murray and Governor Inslee. Go to our Take Action page and tell them why you believe the dams are a critical part of the region’s clean, reliable, and affordable energy future.

New power cost replacement studies shed light on critical role of the lower Snake River dams

Northwest RiverPartners commissioned Energy GPS to perform a Lower Snake River Dams Power Supply Replacement Analysis. The study utilized a power cost model to determine the most cost-effective resource mix to achieve the requirements of the region’s grid decarbonization laws, both with and without the lower Snake River dams in place. This modeling effort was very similar to the Bonneville Power Administration’s E3 study Lower Snake River Dams Replacement Study. Prior to these two studies, all modeling efforts examined dam removal in a vacuum, without testing to see the role of the dams as the region approaches a totally decarbonized grid.

Both studies concluded that the lower Snake River dams are virtually irreplaceable, given currently available technologies under a zero-carbon future. The Energy GPS study forecasted it would take 15,000 MW and $15 billion just to replace the power generating capabilities of the dams. It also found that removing the dams would most likely set back the region’s zero-carbon attainment by 3 to 5 years and increase the grid’s CO2 output by 5 to 8.5 million metrics tons (see graph below).

cumulative capacity additions vs Historical Build Ratios

The E3 study forecasted, given current technologies and more stringent electrification policies, it could cost up to $77 billion to replace the dams’ generating capabilities, given the cost of new long-distance, high voltage transmission lines. At that price, residential electricity rates would jump by about 65%.

Our take:

  • These extensive bodies of work provide a very important insight into the realities of what dam breaching could mean for our region and why we strongly oppose it.

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