Oregon Utilities Sound Alarm Over Spillway Fight

By Scottie Barnes
Scottie Barnes
Scottie Barnes
October 13, 2021 Updated: October 13, 2021

As producers warn of depleted energy supplies and rising prices across the nation, the Northwest is embroiled in a long-running battle over the hydroelectric dams that provide 46 percent of the region’s clean, renewable energy.

Oregon utility companies are urging Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, to withdraw from “never-ending litigation surrounding salmon issues,” which they say would increase energy costs and could lead to rolling blackouts.

Perhaps most egregious, they argue, is that the loss of available hydroelectric power would need to be offset by energy sources with higher carbon content and thereby increase greenhouse gas emissions.

Last year, in a letter to Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, Gov. Brown endorsed complete removal of four hydroelectric dams on the Snake River, saying it is the best way to increase endangered salmon runs.

On July 16, she directed the state to seek a preliminary injunction against the federal government requiring dams to “spill” unprecedented volumes of water from the region’s hydro projects, starting as early as the spring of 2022.

“If approved, the injunction would require water to be released across the lower Snake River and the mainstem Columbia River Dam, which would significantly decrease the availability of clean, renewable hydroelectric power,” explained Lane Electric general manager Debi Wilson.

“Oregon’s motion, if successful, would waste up to 1,300 average megawatts of renewable electricity by spilling water over the top of dams rather than letting it generate energy by passing through turbines,” added Kurt Miller, executive director of Northwest River Partners.

One average megawatt is enough electricity to power roughly 750 homes.

The motion would also make it much harder to achieve the goals set forth in Oregon’s recently passed Clean Energy Bill, because intermittent renewable sources, such as wind and solar, depend on hydropower to fill in the gaps when wind or sunshine are not present, he continued.

Gov. Brown expressed a sense of urgency on the matter.

“The status quo in the Columbia Basin is not working,” Brown stated. “Salmon and steelhead stocks continue to decline, with several now on the brink of extinction.”

Miller argued that dams are not to blame.

“Salmon along the West Coast are seeing similar levels of survival, whether they are returning to rivers with dams or without dams,” he said.

“A peer-reviewed study from 2020 demonstrated that Chinook salmon have seen an average ocean survival decline of 65 percent over the past 50 years, likely due to ocean warming and a shift in balance between predators and prey.”

Several interest groups also weighed in.

“Brown is working to hobble the region’s clean-energy hydroelectric projects, putting the stability of our power grid at risk, all while saying she wants more electric vehicles, lower carbon emissions, and a stable state economy,” stated Scott Simms, executive director of the Public Power Council, which represents the interests of more than 100 consumer-owned utilities in the region.

Simms said Oregon’s proposed move would violate a “flexible-spill agreement” forged in 2018 between the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), the states of Oregon and Washington, and the Nez Perce Tribe.

That agreement was a collaborative approach to resolve the long-standing tension between harnessing the river to power hydroelectric facilities and ensuring sufficient water for salmon populations.

“The agreement was designed to provide benefits to both fish and power production, yet it has barely been put in practice before Gov. Brown seemingly decided on her own that it should be blown up.”

Meanwhile, an Oct. 1 joint letter to the Biden Administration, signed by 64 stakeholder organizations—including community-owned utilities, ports, and agriculture supporters—argued the eight dams that would be affected are critical to the region’s power supply.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers indicated the dams can produce close to 9,000 MW of energy. If BPA had to replace the lower Snake River projects’ full capability with zero-carbon resources, the letter explained, rate increases could reach 50 percent on wholesale power.

But according to Gov Brown, these challenges can and must be met.

“We must continually reevaluate our evolving clean energy portfolio to reflect emerging technologies.

“It is not an either-or choice: We can have a future with abundant and harvestable salmon and reliable clean energy.”

For Miller, that raised a key question.

“What do you replace hydropower with that is reliable and clean and keeps the grid affordable?”

The region has already shunned natural gas and coal generation, with Oregon and Washington passing laws to phase them out over the next two decades and Idaho pledging to follow suit.

“Phasing out hydropower before answering that question is putting the cart before the horse. It’s very risky.”

Scottie Barnes
Scottie Barnes