Northwest water dam gate

Our most abundant clean
energy resource

The Northwest’s hydroelectric dams deliver carbon-free, low-cost power to people all across the region. First constructed as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the dams brought fair access to electricity to the rural Northwest and paved the way for cooperatives and other not-for-profit utilities. Since then, they’ve improved the lives of Northwesterners in numerous other ways that even FDR couldn’t have imagined.

dam control the flow of water and storage

Today, carbon-free energy and climate friendly policies have become a top priority in the Northwest, and our hydroelectric dams are essential to meeting these goals. Hydroelectric dams are already responsible for roughly half the annual generation in our region – enough to meet Seattle’s annual energy needs sixteen times over – and they are capable of producing even more.

Hydropower also provides great support to solar and wind generation, which have fluctuating electric output. Hydroelectric operators can hold water behind a dam when there is a surplus of solar and wind power. Operators can then release that water into turbines when more power is necessary. This control helps provide critical balance to the grid.

In this way, hydropower functions like a giant, clean battery for wind and solar power by storing surplus power (as water) and generating electricity with it when needed.

Water free flowing from dam

However, hydro offers many benefits beyond just producing carbon-free energy and grid balancing. The lower costs of hydropower are crucial for families and individuals that depend on affordable energy. They’re able to keep their homes comfortable and cover their basic needs by not having to worry about overwhelming electricity bills. Those same low costs also allow utilities to provide incentives and programs to help those in need.

Hydropower is good for business too. The low cost of hydropower combined with its carbon-free attributes have attracted companies like Boeing and Norpac Paper, and major tech companies like include Amazon, Microsoft, and Google have located offices and data centers in our region because of our access to clean, affordable energy. Their presence adds jobs to the region and grows our local economies.

On a local level, the dams are critical to communities who live near the Columbia and Snake rivers and their tributaries. They help us save homes and lives by protecting against dangerous floods.

hydropower system

Further East, where the climate is dry and the summers are hot, the dams help farmers irrigate their land and communities access drinking water. In fact, by using just six percent of the annual runoff from the Columbia River, an additional 7.8 million acres of land has been made farmable. The crops and other goods produced by these farms can then be shipped through the ports via barge, which is a very low-carbon alternative to rail cars or semi-trucks. In total, the river system supports over $24 billion in annual exports and imports, and countless jobs and opportunities that extend beyond the Columbia River Basin itself.

Altogether, the benefits of our hydropower system are innumerable and irreplaceable. Even as time has passed and our needs have evolved, the dams continue to offer solutions to our most pressing problems. With issues of climate change and water access looming, hydro will become even more critical.

The Bottom Line

  • Through hydro and rural electrification, the public power model was able to succeed all across the Northwest
  • Hydroelectric dams offer billions of dollars in economic opportunity for the Northwest
  • The low cost of hydropower is crucial for lower income families and individuals
  • Hydropower helps meet our carbon-free energy goals by producing thousands of Megawatts and storing energy for wind and solar