Environmental groups, fishing advocates and tribes in the Northwest have been calling on federal agencies for decades to breach the four lower Snake River dams—an action they believe may be necessary to prevent Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead runs from going extinct.
On February 6, U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson—a Republican from Idaho—joined the chorus with a $33.5 billion plan for breaching the dams and replacing the electricity they produce with other clean energy sources. The money would come from a yet-to-be crafted multitrillion-dollar clean energy infrastructure bill expected to be proposed by President Joe Biden later this year.
Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams are run-of-the-river projects in Eastern Washington that serve multiple purposes, including the production of 1,100 average megawatts of carbon-free energy—enough to power about 900,000 homes, or a city the size of Seattle.
Simpson notes the debate over salmon and dams in the Snake River has raged on for more than 30 years, bringing uncertainty to the hydropower system through multiple lawsuits, appeals and court orders on how to operate the dams.
In a short video, Simpson says he and his staff approached the issue hoping to figure out how to restore Idaho salmon and keep the dams. But after examining dozens of possible solutions, he says they could find no viable way to do both.
“I want to be clear that I’m not certain removing these dams will restore Idaho salmon and prevent their extinction,” he says. “But I am certain that if we do not take this course of action, we are condemning Idaho salmon to extinction.”
The plan was met with strong support from some tribes and environmental and fishing groups, and strong opposition from port districts, barge operators, grain and wheat commissions, and some of Simpson’s Republican colleagues in Congress.
Many who work in public power say the proposal is as significant as the Northwest Power Act, passed in 1980.
So far, public utility groups have not taken a position for or against the concept. That’s partly because there is a lot in it to help the energy sector, but so much uncertainty about how the proposal would affect utilities—including public power rates and reliability.
While energy replacement is a small piece of Simpson’s much larger concept, it is by far the most expensive. Simpson proposes giving the Bonneville Power Administration or another entity up to $10 billion in a direct grant to replace the dams with renewable sources. Projects could be sited throughout the Northwest, and would be online by 2030—when the first dam would be breached.
BPA would receive up to $4 billion to build new generation sources to replace hydroelectricity lost when water is spilled over dams to help juvenile salmon migrate downstream. The plan also provides $2 billion for Northwest transmission resiliency and security, and resource adequacy planning. A major selling point is a 35-year moratorium on litigation related to anadromous fish.
Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest RiverPartners—a nonprofit group representing community-owned electric utilities in seven states—said it is unclear how the litigation moratorium would work, or if it could include Clean Water Act lawsuits raised through state water quality standards.
“Assuming it works—assuming it gains enough support, and it passes, and it’s executed in the way that Simpson intends—I think there are still some big ifs,” Miller says.
One of his biggest concerns is reliability.
“You are talking about breaching four very reliable dams and replacing them with intermittent renewables,” Miller says. “You need resources that are available during extreme weather, and hydropower is really good for that, especially on short duration.”
He said in concept, the plan should keep electric rates stable, since the replacement resources would be built with federal funds. But if breaching the dams or construction of new resources cost more than anticipated, ratepayers could be on the hook to pay the extra, Miller says.
“On the broad strokes, we think Rep. Simpson has done an admirable job of trying to address these issues, but can the parties involved actually execute the different sections of the strategy to deliver what’s promised?” Miller asks. “None of these things is easy. Each of them has a high degree of risk. When you put them all together, you have a substantial amount of risk and uncertainty.”
Others representing public power are waiting to do a thorough examination of the proposal before weighing in.
Scott Simms, executive director of the Public Power Council, says his staff is assessing the proposal from economic, legislative and generating resources standpoints.
“The goal was to pool our resources so that we can better understand the key opportunities and risks this concept presents for Northwest public power,” Simms says.
To Simpson, the plan may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the course of diminishing salmon runs and stop the cycle of litigation that has plagued the region.
“This is about more than salmon,” he says. “It’s about the whole Northwest and asking how do we want to recover all of our salmon and how do we want our energy system to look in 30, 40, 50 years.
“I am asking my fellow Northwest Republicans and Democrats, ‘Do we want to roll up our sleeves and come up with a Northwest solution on our terms now, or are we going to let the chips fall where they may and have a judge or future Congress decide it for us?’
“The delegation, governors, tribes and stakeholders all know what’s best for the Northwest. We have a very unique opportunity.”
K.C. Meheffey is a writer for Clearing Up—a newsletter that provides coverage of energy markets in the Pacific Northwest. It is an independently run subsidiary of Ruralite publisher Pioneer Utility Resources.
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