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Ron Williams: Dams provide cheap, clean energy we can't afford to lose

08/18/07 by Ron Williams - Idaho Statesman

There are 120,000 public power consumers in Idaho, most of them in rural communities, who for decades have relied on the Bonneville Power Administration for reasonably priced energy. They have a continuing interest in BPA providing energy and protecting salmon. Breaching the four lower Snake dams — as advocated by the Statesman — is not the salmon recovery step needed at this time and brings with it significant adverse economic consequences for rural Idaho.

As Sen. Mike Crapo stated in a July 29 Statesman interview, "Currently the region is working according to an ‘aggressive non-breach' policy that is focused on doing everything possible to recover our fish short of breaching the four lower Snake dams." Those ‘non-breach' programs and multi-million-dollar investments need to run their course before dam breaching can be legitimately considered.

The current regional "sovereigns'" (state and federal agencies and tribes) collaborative effort to develop a new biological opinion (BiOp) to protect and recover stocks of Northwest salmon and steelhead is under way. This process was ordered by Judge Redden in Oregon Federal District Court as a way for regional interests to work together on creative solutions, without congressional intervention. That process is ongoing.

On average, the four Lower Snake dams produce slightly more than 1,200 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the city of Seattle. The dams can produce a peak amount of electricity of more than 3,000 megawatts. Roughly 5 percent of the Northwest's electricity comes from these four dams. BPA estimates that its customers would pay $400 million to $550 million a year to replace the power generated by these four lower Snake River dams if those dams were removed. These dams generate electricity at a very low historical cost, and power sold from them to rural Idaho customers are "at cost." Replacing renewable hydroelectricity built with 1960s and '70s dollars with current dollars makes little sense, absent a compelling case. That case has not yet been made.

In advocating dam breaching while promoting wind power development, the Statesman is also pursuing an inconsistent position. BPA estimates it can "firm" approximately 6,000 megawatts of wind generated electricity with its "flexible" hydro system. A 3,000 megawatt reduction of the hydro system peaking capacity would reduce by hundreds of megawatts, if not thousands, potential wind power development. As the Pacific Northwest moves toward wind power as a key renewable resource, we need the generation peaking capacity of the dams to provide backup when the wind doesn't blow. Otherwise, we face the prospect over time of building other thermal (coal or natural gas) plants to cover peak loads, or simply not having enough energy to meet demand.

Absent a more compelling argument, we should remain on the path where we retain our existing clean, renewable hydro-electric resources, while at the same time seek to better protect and improve our salmon runs. We are not yet at the fork in the road where we have to choose between the two.

Ron Williams is an attorney in Boise and represents the Idaho Consumer-Owned Utilities Association, a trade association of 22 nonprofit electric cooperatives and municipalities providing retail electric service throughout Idaho.

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