A federal judge in Portland is considering how the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River interact with salmon.
When you flip the switch, where does your power come from?
At the same time, environmentalists continue to push the Obama Administration to remove several of the hydroelectric dams on the Columbia River.
And that leads us to the next installment in our energy series, The Switch.
Hydroelectric power has long been part of the Northwest’s fabled history. In fact, Woody Guthrie wrote a whole album about building the Columbia River dams.
But in our clean energy future, is hydropower really "green" enough?
Ethan Lindsey explores the issue.
Hydro power and the Northwest, they’re nearly synonymous, even for people who've never heard Guthrie's "Roll on Columbia."
In fact, when Fran Halpin graduated from college in Massachusetts, it just made sense to move West and work on one of the country’s biggest renewable energy projects.
Fran Halpin: “I came here and got a job with Bonneville, and I said, this is like my dream job. I get to do engineering and I get to be environmentally conscious, and work with fish survival and renewable energy and conservation. Being an engineer, I am not that much of a braggart. People have to pry this stuff out of me. It is a job I am very proud to be doing and happy to be doing. I’ve loved it ever since I came out here.”
Halpin works in the Portland offices of the Bonneville Power Administration.
Today, he heads up a team that watches the water flow of the Columbia River system and markets power accordingly.
Through Halpin’s eyes, the hydroelectric power generated along the Columbia is one of the best answers we’ve got to our energy questions.
His office sits next to a trading floor and monitoring room – both of which feature banks and banks of computer screens.
Fran Halpin: “I have a couple of displays here that I can show you if you want. Ok, so this is about midnight here. So we’re at 1500 megawatts or 1700 megawatts at Grand Coulee. And then it’s dropping off between midnight and 1 o’clock. Turning off the Late Show, electric heaters are turning off. And then, early risers start getting up, so you start seeing the load picking up, people are coming into schools or offices, so the load does come way up.”
The Bonneville Power Administration sells and markets electric power generated from the federally-owned energy projects in the Northwest – that includes wind and nuclear power, as well as BPA's bedrock business: hydroelectric dams.
On a tour of the Bonneville Dam, the sheer scale of the engineering is breathtaking.
The dams are operated by federal agencies, notably the Army Corps of Engineers.
Dams make up the biggest piece of the Northwest’s hydroelectric pie.
They're a reliable source of base load power. That and their ability to respond to increased demands at peak times are key selling points of hydro.
Longtime Oregonians remember when hydro constituted more than 90 percent of the state’s power a few decades ago.
Inside the dam, next to the energy turbines, it’s hard to believe that hydro’s share of the regional power mix has now been cut in half.
Population and energy growth has been coupled with a push to sell cheaper power to California.
So now, Oregon gets just 42-percent of its energy from hydroelectric power.
Still, hydro is one of the cheapest – if not the cheapest – power source we’ve got.
The Bonneville Power Administration says its average price per kilowatt-hour over the past year was 2.73 cents.
The only rival is coal – but hydro supporters like to point out the dams don’t pump any pollution into the sky.
And on top of all that, it’s renewable.
Steve Wright: “Well, hydro is clearly renewable. I don’t think there’s any question about that. The fact of the matter is, it’s the cycle of water that we are able to take advantage of.
Steve Wright is the Administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration.
He says it’s also sustainable, and in his mind, green.
Steve Wright: “I believe the fundamental value of the electric power system in the Northwest resides in that river. This is a huge river, and it sits on the side of a very steep hill. And that’s a unique opportunity. Hydro power is the best renewable resource because it is the lowest cost and most reliable renewable resource. And I think that’s why so many people in the Northwest feel connected to the Columbia.”
But Wright, as well as anyone, knows and acknowledges the environmental costs of the dams.
They damaged the nearby habitat, forever changed cultures, and killed lots and lots of fish.
And to Brett Swift at the conservation group American Rivers, a label like “green” or “sustainable” or “renewable” just doesn’t fit.
Brett Swift: “Dams absolutely have an adverse impact on the environment. The important question is ‘what is the role of hydropower in the future of our energy mix. And how we label it doesn’t necessarily inform that.”
Swift says American Rivers knows that hydropower will be a part of the region’s future energy reliance – but says that doesn’t mean we should start building new dams or dismiss getting rid of old, inefficient ones.
One model for future hydro is small-scale, low impact dams.
Jerry Bryan stands next to a small hydroelectric project in the Farmers Irrigation District outside Hood River
The entire facility is about the size of a 7-11.
Jerry Bryan: “You are looking right now at the control panels for both of those generators. I still think that I am staring at engineering technology from the 40s and 50s.”
Unlike a traditional dam, this project allows fish to swim by unimpeded and yet provides local irrigators with the water they need to grow their crops.
Many in the state say little hydro projects like this could serve as models for low-impact, small scale power generation in the future, but Bryan is reluctant to take any praise.
Jerry Bryan: “If I am going to stand here and say a project I am working on is a model for everyone, I am justly accused of affected arrogance. So I am not willing to say that, but what I am willing to generalize is that if people sit down, then wonderful models emerge.”
Bryan says his project isn’t perfect. Every energy source has drawbacks.
And that’s the crux of the hydro debate, says Angus Duncan, with the non-profit Bonneville Environmental Foundation.
Angus Duncan: “There’s a tendency to exalt some sources of energy, and demonize others. And for better or worse, hydro has been demonized in the Northwest. Right now, a far greater threat to salmon runs generally, is global warming. That is a bigger threat than the hydroelectric system.”
Duncan says inefficient and destructive dams are being torn out around the region right now. And that should continue.
But he says if we tear out the big dams, we’ll need to replace that energy with something else.
And until hydro power can be replaced by something other than coal, it’s "green" enough for most.