Replacing the energy created by four Lower Snake River dams would cost $860 million annually, likely increasing utility bills in Cowlitz County, according to a regional energy and business coalition opposed to removing the structures.
And breaching the dams would eliminate an important regional energy supply at a time when the Northwest is already at risk of future energy shortages, the coalition says.
Northwest River Partners — a hydropower advocacy group of utility districts, ports and businesses — released a newly commissioned analysis earlier this month that evaluates the cost of replacing the energy produced by the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams.
Its $860 million figure is almost twice that of previous estimates, including the widely accepted 2018 study by the Northwest Energy Coalition. Just how much money is that? By comparison, the federal government spent an average of $727 million annually on fish and salmon recovery in the Columbia Basin in 2007-2017. Fish recovery costs are a major driver of power rates.
“If you really wanted to do it, it would cost about $1 billion a year to replace the lost energy. ... That’s an exceptionally higher number, and one that would mostly be borne by customer of community utilities, most of whom, like Cowlitz PUD, get most of their energy from (Bonneville Power Administration),” said Kurt Miller, Northwest River Partners executive director.
BPA markets power from the dams, which produce enough energy to power more than 800,000 U.S. homes. Cowlitz PUD buys about 90% of its power from BPA.
Many native tribes and conservationists want to breach the dams to try to help recover threatened salmon, and in turn help sustain the Puget Sound orcas. Snake River salmon are a top ten food source for orca. But the dams make it more difficult for them to survive on their way to the ocean.
Opponents to dam breaching say safe fish passageways and spilling more water over the dams have increased the survival rate of juvenile chinook to more than 90 percent. But conservationists argue that salmon runs are nowhere near their former volumes, even with improvements to the dams.
The new analysis, completed by Energy GPS, “really did call into question the feasibility” of dam breaching, Miller said. Unlike previous, “out-dated” studies, it considers the state’s 2019 carbon-free energy initiative and recent data outlining potential energy shortages as a result of upcoming coal plant retirements, Miller said.
“We still hear people refer to the NWEC-commissioned study as proof we don’t really need the lower Snake River dams. Our point is that study, which was released in 2018, was actually based on 2016 assumptions around what the energy supply availability would be, and that’s changed so dramatically,” Miller said.
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For example, NWEC based its study off the assumption that about 2,800 average megawatts of coal fire generation would be retired in the next decade. Energy groups now estimate about twice as many megawatts will go offline, Miller said.
That would be like losing about a quarter of the region’s energy supply, he said.
“There are several major utility groups and energy forecasting companies that are saying that the Northwest, even with the dams in place, could very possibly face an energy shortage and maybe even blackouts in the next five years. ... You can imagine how much more severe that concern would be without 1,000 megawatts of carbon-free energy” produced by the Snake River Dams, Miller said.
Sean O’Leary, a spokesman with NWEC, said his organization “actually found a great deal of encouragement” in the new study.
“It acknowledges a point that we’ve been making and that frankly Northwest River Partners had been denying ... which is that of course renewable resources can replace the power from the dams,” O’Leary said.
Although the costs differ from NWEC’s study, seeing a plan to replace the dams’ energy is “real progress, if we are to the point where we are talking about the cost of the plan rather than whether it can be done.”
And while conditions have changed since NWEC released the 2018 study, some of the changes actually support the group’s original study, O’Leary said.
“(RiverPartners) insists, and this is a significant part of the additional costs in their study, that there will not be adequate transmission resources to handle the renewable (energy) that will be necessary to replace the dams,” he said. But that’s a “mistaken conclusion” because as more coal fired plants close, it opens up capacity on the transmission grid, O’Leary said.
Miller said Northwest River Partners wanted to analyze the latest energy data in part because the federal government is completing an environmental impact statement about management of the Columbia River System, which includes 14 federal dams and reservoirs. The draft EIS will evaluate how changing conditions in the basin, such as breaching some dams, would affect resources such as energy, navigation, fish and cultural resources, water supply and air quality.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other federal stakeholders are expected to release the draft EIS by the end of February. A 45-day public comment period will follow.
Dam breaching groups will likely highlight the NWEC study to support their argument, Miller said. The new analysis challenges those assumptions by showing how conditions have changed, he said.
“A lot of people are really dug in, whether they are supportive of the dams or not supportive of the dams,” Miller said. “We know that policy makers want the best for the region, and they need to be informed so that they can have the best outcome. We are really hoping shedding a different light on the economics and the feasibility will help them to make the best decision for the region.”