Executive Director Sara Patton on BPA's next 75 years

The following editorial by NW Energy Coalition Executive Director Sara Patton appeared in the March 8, 2013 edition of Clearing Up.

BPA must build on clean-energy leadership, restore wild salmon

For 75 years, the Bonneville Power Administration has been intrinsic to the growth and prosperity of the Northwest. BPA has:

  • Distributed incredibly cheap, mostly renewable-resourced power to families and businesses throughout the region.
  • Helped secure enough energy efficiency to run the equivalent of four Seattles year after year.
  • Weatherized low-income homes.
  • Incorporated more than 7,000 megawatts of wind power capacity into its grid.
  • Initiated the first “integrated transmission planning” with its Non-Wires Roundtable.

On the other hand, despite large BPA fish and wildlife expenditures, wild salmon remain endangered in the Columbia Basin, and courts have flatly rejected three federal restoration plans as arbitrary and capricious.

BPA has been a boon to the Northwest’s economy and a clean energy leader. To meet the challenges – many unforeseeable — of the next 75 years, BPA must deepen its commitment to the long-term health of the region while becoming more open to all of its stakeholders. And it must be agile enough to respond to big changes.

My 35 years as a clean energy advocate, the last 20 (almost!) with the NW Energy Coalition, have taught me a few things about the Bonneville. First, like many of our institutions, the agency will probably outlive us. Second Bonneville will affect the lives of us all, of our descendants and our ecosystem. That’s why we must insist that BPA’s spend its next 75 years building on its clean energy leadership and undoing its harm to the ecosystem.

Bonneville’s foreseeable challenges include:

  • Adapting to accelerating climate disruption.
  • Restoring salmon while keeping whole the communities that depend on the Columbia and the Snake rivers.
  • Acquiring all cost-effective energy efficiency.
  • Integrating more wind and other clean renewables into the Northwest grid.
  • Eliminating the huge and growing backload of low-income housing in desperate need of bill- and energy-saving weatherization.
  • Transforming the power system to meet the challenge of increased distributed generation.

We do know clean energy and the welfare of Northwest communities, cultures, families, businesses and industries must be Bonneville’s constant concerns.

Bonneville will have to find ways to ensure that the utilities it serves capture ALL cost-effective energy efficiency. In the short term, BPA must restore its efficiency budget to keep up the record regionwide efficiency gains of the past two years. Self-funding is clearly not an option for many smaller utilities. The sad history of rollercoaster efficiency investment and many utilities’ recent statements show this to be true.

Building and maintaining its transmission system to facilitate new renewable energy remain essential to Bonneville’s mission. Regardless of current natural gas prices and of fleeting “overgeneration” problems, we need more (and more diverse) renewable energy generation because we must replace dirty coal power to meet the power system’s climate challenge and to protect utilities and consumers from fossil fuel price and supply shocks.

At the same time, policymakers and transmission planners must monitor the potentially disruptive shift to more and more distributed generation, from solar panels on factories to small community- or household-based wind and solar projects. As distributed generation becomes mainstream, the central-station paradigm – with associated big transmission – will wane. The remarkable drop in solar costs in the last two years tells us that the future we thought was right around the corner 35 years ago might be just smack into us if we don’t prepare before we reach that next corner.

How will baseload power plants and small renewables come together in a secure and affordable power system? How will utilities deal with the shift, technologically and financially? BPA is in a unique position – and has a singular responsibility – to fashion an orderly transition to the new reality.

Finally, Bonneville needs to do its part to restore endangered wild salmon. BPA cannot bring back the salmon that Grand Coulee extinguished. But it can avert extinction and help bring back healthy, harvestable runs of salmon in the rest of the Columbia and Snake. The agency has been part of three flatly illegal federal recovery plans. Bonneville’s Strategic Direction notes the power system importance of solving the problem:

The uncertainty about whether the court will approve a new BiOp to be produced in 2014, and about the environmental requirements on hydro operations that could result, will continue to create challenges for managing [Federal Columbia River Power System] operations and planning for future power production, cost and revenue levels.

And Bonneville must understand the cultural, scientific and moral importance of bringing salmon back, as well.

We know that BPA can use its talent, authorities and resources to make the next 75 years better for our homes, businesses and factories; for our air and water; for our climate, for our salmon and other wildlife; and for us, our children and our children’s children.

Sara Patton
Executive Director
NW Energy Coalition