Dam Replacement Study Reveals New Opportunities

(The following opinion piece by NW Energy Coalition executive director, Nancy Hirsh, was published in the April 21, 2018 edition of the Tri-City Herald.)

The NW Energy Coalition has released a new study demonstrating that the ongoing decline in the cost of new wind and solar energy can not only contribute to a cleaner environment, it may also help save Northwest salmon and orca whales threatened with extinction.

The power replacement study — the most extensive yet undertaken on the subject — shows that power from the four lower Snake River dams can be affordably replaced by a mix of energy efficiency measures and renewable energy resources without any loss of electric-system reliability and with little or no increase in greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, electric system adequacy, reliability and flexibility would actually improve.

These findings put to rest the decades-old myth that we have to choose between clean, affordable and reliable energy on the one hand, and the recovery of salmon populations on the other.

That’s quite a deal when you also consider the opportunities that would accompany build-out of new renewable resources, the economic shot in the arm that dam removal would give our fishing and tourism industries, and the establishment of the Tri-Cities as a navigation terminus for future shipping activity.

By offering a promising solution to a problem the region has struggled with for decades, this new study is reason for optimism.

Still, there are naysayers. In an April 13 guest opinion piece, Todd Myers of the Washington Policy Center attacked the study by portraying the transition to wind, solar and efficiency as too large and too costly.

But, the fact is that the Northwest has the largest potential for wind development in the nation and far more solar potential than the amount called for by the study. Meanwhile, many states — Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa and California among them — have replaced old energy sources with new renewables on a larger scale than is required to replace power from the Snake River dams.

While the study estimates the average cost to Northwest households to be a little more than a dollar a month, the figure could turn out to be even lower if the future price for wind and solar turns out to be less than the conservative assumptions of the study.

Additional savings may also be realized because a 2015 study showed that the cost of removing the dams would be more than offset by the savings of capital expenditures for ongoing dam maintenance and fish recovery programs.

Meanwhile, a recent poll showed a majority of Washington voters would be willing to pay far more than a dollar a month to restore wild salmon and improve water quality. Most also said they support removing the four lower Snake River dams.

Myers also tries to claim the transition to new renewable resources would greatly increase greenhouse gas emissions. While it’s possible that electric system emissions could go up by less than 1 percent due to supplemental market-based purchases by utilities, it’s equally true that emissions could decrease by as much as 2 percent depending on the environmental policies the region’s state governments choose to adopt.

In short, Myers is being an alarmist and it’s not the first time. He made the same kinds of claims a decade ago, when Washington voters approved ballot Initiative 937 requiring utilities to increase energy efficiency and the use of new renewables. At that time, Myers wrote that passage would cause our utility bills to double and cost the state thousands of jobs.

Instead, in the decade after we passed I-937, utility rates grew at less than the rate of inflation and clean energy businesses became one of the fastest growing and biggest job-creating sectors of the state’s economy.

You can see the study and summaries of its findings at www.nwenergy.org/lsrdstudy. We hope you’ll take a look and then reach out to state and federal policymakers and ask them to explore the study and embrace this new opportunity to solve a decades-old problem.

Nancy Hirsh is the executive director of the NW Energy Coalition.