Affordable, plentiful energy is the root of a society that enables economic growth. It’s easy to forget our community’s biggest asset even though it affects everything we do. Now more than ever, our customers need to understand hydropower’s role in the rapidly changing energy landscape, and how we’re preparing for the future.
It’s no secret that the public utility districts of Chelan, Douglas and Grant counties provide very low electric rates. Thanks to the vision of local citizens who voted to create public utility districts, and the commissioners elected to represent them, our PUDs brought low-cost public-owned hydropower to our region over 60 years ago. Today, these hydropower projects are the backbone of a clean energy economy that supports local residents and attracts new industries. As a bonus, the dams provide recreational opportunities and beautiful parks that make our communities a desirable place to live.
Good News for Hydropower
Hydropower’s reputation has seen some highs and lows over the last few years in the regional and national spotlight. The good news is that Washington State’s Clean Energy Transformation Act recognizes hydropower as a clean resource that can help meet carbon reduction goals. That’s a change from 20 years ago, when our existing hydropower wasn’t counted as eligible under the state’s renewable energy standard. At the federal level, recent laws providing billions in clean energy incentives treat hydropower more equitably than in the past. These are encouraging signs. Yet most people don’t really understand hydropower’s crucial role in keeping our electric grid reliable and costs affordable as coal and natural gas generators retire.
Bad News for Hydropower
A recent proposal illustrates this problem and highlights the growing disconnect surrounding hydropower’s importance to our everyday lives. In December, the U.S. government filed an agreement in Oregon to resolve an Endangered Species Act lawsuit against federally owned dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Under the agreement, the U.S. government commits to helping tribes build replacement power for the four Lower Snake River Dams. The goal is to bring the region one step closer to breaching them. Dam breaching is deeply concerning for customers served by utilities (including those in Okanogan and Kittitas counties) who purchase power from the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the hydropower produced by the Lower Snake River Dams. It is also concerning to regional electric grid managers, who understand there are no easy replacements for the consistent carbon-free energy provided by these dams. Unfortunately, utilities were not allowed to provide input into the agreement, and many of the details are still unclear.
Building on the Hydropower Foundation
Talk of dam breaching fails to recognize that we’re entering a time of extreme change for the electric grid. Projected electricity demand is staggering as new industries and public policy shift more energy use to electricity. The Pacific Northwest Utilities Coordinating Council predicts 20 percent electricity load growth in the region over the next 5 years. Meanwhile, state and federal policies increasingly require that electricity be emission-free. This will entail a combination of energy storage, remote renewables, new transmission lines, and more energy innovation. It’s more likely that the region will need both massive amounts of new power AND the Snake River Dams. Otherwise, customers statewide would be impacted by less reliability and higher bills like we’ve seen in other parts of the country.
Our Stewardship Responsibilities
With hydropower and energy issues so frequently in the news, we wanted to assure our customers that we are looking ahead and adapting to change. Our PUDs hosted a Clean Energy Expo in Wenatchee last month because we expect to need more energy and want to explore innovative sources. We continue to invest in our hydropower projects through modernization and dam safety investments. And we’ve committed to fish management programs that go above and beyond standard regulatory requirements. For example, just recently Chelan PUD achieved its 20-year standard for having “no net impact” on migrating salmon and steelhead. Both Douglas and Grant PUDs also have similar long-term programs that exceed the requirements of their federal hydropower licenses.
Stewardship is overseeing and protecting something worth preserving. Our communities have a great gift in the public-owned dams – both PUD and federal – on the Columbia River system. With this foundation of reliable, zero-carbon emitting power, we are well-positioned to respond to future change while preserving our public power legacy – and that applies to fish and clean, reliable energy for everyone.
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