Looming power shortage is ‘killer argument’ against dam-breaching

Note: The following op-ed appeared in the Tri-City Herald, the Prosser Record-Bulletin and the Dayton Chronicle during the month of February.

Ice Harbor Dam on the Snake River, one of four dams targeted by breaching advocates. Credit/Wikimedia Commons

By Maureen Walsh

The case for breaching the Snake River dams was always weak-to-nonexistent, but in the last few months, a new argument has emerged that ought to end the debate once and for all. We need the power – or we may just find ourselves shivering in the dark.

Utilities throughout the Pacific Northwest are sounding the alarm about a power shortage that will begin next year, and keep getting worse, as clean-energy legislation forces the shutdown of coal plants. By 2032, the chance of blackouts will triple, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the independent agency charged with forecasting the region’s power needs. Similar warnings come from other utility organizations – Portland General Electric, the Pacific Northwest Utility Coordinating Committee and the Northwest Power Pool. One cold snap, and the entire grid could go down.

These warnings couldn’t come at a better time for our region’s fight to preserve the four Snake River dams. Over the last 30 years, environmental groups have managed to turn an absurd suggestion into a disturbing possibility. The crunch time is now, as the Army Corps of Engineers prepares to release an environmental impact statement on fish passage on the Snake. Dam-breaching advocates have been doing everything they can to influence the report, with position statements masquerading as “studies” and good old-fashioned political muscle.

But now we can say, without exaggeration, that the facts are on Southeast Washington’s side. And it is up to the people of our region to make sure the rest of the state knows it.

We’ve tried talking about the economic devastation dam-breaching would wreak on our region. We’ve pointed out that fish passage on the Snake and Columbia has been improved to the point that it rivals undammed Canadian rivers. Ocean conditions are responsible for recent declines in salmon runs, and dam-financed hatchery programs are the only things sustaining them. Unfortunately, none of this has mattered much to Seattle.

Blackouts-ahead is a new argument, and it is a game-changer. Passage of the Clean Energy Transformation Act by the 2019 Legislature has put the reliability of our power grid at risk. All coal power will be banned by 2025, even power generated across state lines. All natural gas turbines will be banned by 2045, eliminating any thought they might pick up the slack. We will lose 3.6 MW of power capacity by 2032, and there are no plans to replace it.

We keep hearing our power needs can be met by more windmills and technologies as-yet-undreamed, never mind the cost. But dreams are just dreams, and the wind doesn’t blow all the time. Our other hydropower is already spoken-for, for baseload needs and to back up the windmills we already have. Meanwhile, we can expect power demand to explode when electric cars take hold – preliminary findings of a study by the University of Texas indicate full conversion of Washington’s motor fleet will increase demand 25 percent. It is just starting to dawn on Olympia there might be a problem.

We can’t afford to lose the 3 MW of cheap, clean power the dams provide. Breaching advocates have been telling us we don’t need it, because the region has been in surplus for most of the last 20 years. Fine, but it’s the future that counts. At last, the clean-energy law has given us the killer argument.