Coalition study finds negligible cost for effective salmon recovery action

Nearly 35 years after the Northwest Power Act mandated equal treatment for fish and power generation in the Columbia-Snake system, 13 of the basin’s wild salmon and steelhead stocks are still listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Recovery will require, among other measures, changes in hydropower system operations that will reduce electricity generation, such as dam removal or greatly increased spill over the dams. What would replacing the power cost Northwest energy consumers and how does it compare to escalating costs of maintaining aging power system infrastructure?

Costs to maintain the lower Snake River dams are fast approaching the costs of replacing that power with other resources, according to the NW Energy Coalition’s new issue paper, Restoring wild salmon: Power system costs and benefits of lower Snake River dam removal. Looking only at power system costs and savings, the study concludes that replacing the four dams’ power, which peaks in the spring and dwindles through the summer, with a mix of large solar power and grid purchases might add a dollar to an average family’s monthly utility bill.

Restoring wild salmon models dam removal, though its findings could apply to alternatives – such as greatly expanded spill over the dams – should they be found equally effective in restoring endangered stocks to harvestable levels.

The paper takes the 1,040 average megawatts of electricity (about what Seattle uses) the dams produce in an average year, replaces their “firm” (always available) output with 463 aMW of cost-effective solar power and 579 aMW of purchases from the power grid. After applying a hefty surcharge (the social cost of carbon) to the fraction of market power produced from fossil fuels, the total power cost comes to $609 million a year.

From that we subtract $269 million annual cost for maintaining the dams, based on new analysis from retired U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Walla Walla (Wash.) deputy engineer Jim Waddell. The result is a net power replacement cost of $340 million a year which, filtered down to customers of utilities that get their power from the Bonneville Power Administration, raises average monthly bills by $1.03.

Again, the study does not investigate the significant non-power costs and benefits of related changes in navigation, flood control, irrigation, fisheries or outdoor industry economics. Our aim is to inform current discussions on the future of the power system rather than to provide a comprehensive examination. It is time to reevaluate the power system costs and benefits of operating the lower Snake River dams.

We call upon the Northwest Power and Conservation Council to bring its considerable modeling skills and computational resources to bear on its own study, based on updated stream flow data and accurate dam retention costs.

Contact your Council members:

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Restoring wild salmon: Power system costs and benefits of lower Snake River dam removal is available here. To see the data used, please click here.

For more information, contact NW Energy Coalition policy director Wendy Gerlitz at