How Snake River dam debate could affect your power bill

NEAR TRI-CITIES, Wash. -- The future of four dams on the lower Snake River in Eastern Washington is still undecided after the latest draft from the governor's orca task force revealed members have yet to reach a consensus.

Proposals to breach the dams have dominated public comment and petitions throughout the task force process aimed at coming up with recommendations to save southern resident orcas from extinction.

The pressure has left federal agencies scrambling to defend the dams' benefits, including Bonneville Power Administration, or BPA, which markets the power.

Most of the Pacific Northwest is powered by water; hydropower meets about 60 percent of the region's needs. About 5 percent of the region's power comes from four dams on the lower Snake River between Tri-Cities and Lewiston, Idaho.

A federal judge has already ordered the federal government to consider removing these dams because of the impact the dams have had on native fish stocks. Two of those stocks are critical to the endangered orca, but BPA claims the dams are a critical part of the energy grid.

The Northwest is flush with power. In fact, there’s a surplus.

"The question is: Do you have the capacity at times when you need it -- the hottest day of the year or the coldest day of the year?" BPA Deputy Administrator Dan James said.

Just a handful of dams on the Columbia River provide the majority of hydropower needed in the Pacific Northwest. But the system's capacity -- the ability to handle spikes -- is the primary purpose behind several other dams, including the four on the lower Snake River.

Nancy Hirsh, executive director of NW Energy Coalition, is advocating for fish restoration on the Columbia and Snake rivers while promoting renewable energy sources. I asked her if the four lower Snake River dams are critical to the region's energy grid.

"They are a part of our energy grid and they are a part of our energy grid that, with proper planning, we can replace," Hirsh said.

Impacts on salmon and orca

The fate of the four lower Snake River dams has been challenged for decades because of its impacts on native fish. Those challenges are getting louder with each southern resident orca death.

The endangered killer whales eat mainly chinook salmon from a variety of waters, but according to NOAA Fisheries, two of the orca's top 10 priority stocks come from the Snake River.

As the governor’s orca task force looks to recover salmon habitat, orca and salmon scientists point to the Snake River’s high elevation and cold water streams as ideal conditions for restoration.

"You want to be able to put your money in a system where it’s going to have the longest-term impacts and the greatest potential in the long run, in the long term, to have healthy sustainable runs of salmon," said Deborah Giles, a leading whale research biologist with the University of Washington. "The Snake River fits those bills."

Off the grid

But what about the power the dams provide? BPA sells power from 31 federal dams to utility companies like Seattle City Light.

"Without the flexibility and operating reserves that these dams supply, the region would lose a substantial amount of its ability to deliver reliable energy," James said.

If the four dams were to go off the grid, the region’s power reliability would be considered inadequate, according to standards set by Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

But if they were replaced with a bundle of other clean energy options, a study commissioned by NW Energy Coalition shows that risk goes away.

"We see wind and solar and storage and energy efficiency working in partnership to create the same reliability, and even more reliable, than the hydro system itself," Hirsh said.

BPA has claimed that the cheapest, most efficient way to replace the dams' power would be with new natural gas resources. NW Energy Coalition fights that assumption and has presented a clean replacement energy portfolio that would 'either decrease greenhouse gas emissions or cause emissions to rise by less than 1 percent.'

The study used BPA's own numbers for its projections. BPA's asset manager Kieran Connolly told me the content of the study is sound.

It comes down to cost

The agency's own estimates on replacing the dams' power range from $274 million to $372 million. It's a cost that would be passed on to ratepayers.

"Those numbers sound like they’re in the ballpark but when you break that down to what that means for customers, it’s $1.25," Hirsh said.

Hirsh said the study they commissioned from Energy Strategies is very conservative and the replacement costs could be even cheaper. As it stands, it would be a modest increase each month if it is spread over the entire region. BPA says the cost would be higher than that if the increase is only split between the agency's ratepayers.

Other vocal participants in the power conversation, including former civil engineer Jim Waddell of Dam Sense, claim BPA would not need to replace the power at all because of the increase in private renewable energy investments.

The replacement estimates from BPA and NW Energy Coalition could also be offset by taking into account the money BPA would save on dam operations. In 2017, the agency spent $122 million to generate power from the four dams on the lower Snake River. That does not include the agency's fish and wildlife obligations.

Annually, BPA spends between $250 million and $300 million on fish mitigation in the form of hatcheries, habitat and land acquisition across the entire Federal Columbia River Power System. In 2017, $81 million of that was allocated throughout all subbasins of the Snake River.

However, breaching the Snake River dams would not save the agency that entire $81 million in mitigation cost because it still has to account for the environmental damage the Columbia River dams cause Snake River fish as they make their way to and from the ocean.

Also, the investments have not been enough to satisfy one federal judge, who ordered the agencies take a hard look at the dams and consider breaching one or more to save threatened fish.

An agency in trouble

Connolly said that a replacement increase to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars would make the agency noncompetitive in the market.

The agency is already cash-strapped, crunched with low market prices, expensive capital projects and its fish and wildlife programs.

BPA is spending $100 million alone to replace half of the turbines at Ice Harbor Lock and Dam on the Snake River. The new blades will be more fish friendly and efficient for power generation.

These capital investments have pushed the price of generating power at the dams much higher than the agency's forecasted cost through 2030. BPA expects the project will be complete in the next few years and then claims the level of investment on the Snake River will 'drop to a significantly lower level' as it focuses on improvements at other dams on the Columbia River.

Still, capital projects are just a portion of what's hurting the bottom line. In a meeting with the region's power council earlier this year, BPA Administrator Elliot Mainzer painted a grim financial picture, where the agency is not priced competitively and has raised rates by 30 percent in the past decade.

"I've heard it since the day I took the job that we've got to get ourselves off this unsustainable rate trajectory," Mainzer said.

BPA has taken big hits in the secondary revenue market, where it sells surplus energy generated at dams like those on the Snake River. It has burned through about $800 million in cash in the past decade, leaving them with close to zero cash reserves.

The current market price of around $20 per megawatt hour is unsustainable for the company. The agency quotes a levelized forecasted energy price of $37 per megawatt hour through 2030, which would be far more viable, though some energy experts doubt the market will go up that much. BPA is predicting the decarbonization of the region will cause prices to rise.

Right now, there are simply too many power options on the grid with new renewable energy and cheap natural gas. Stiff competition is keeping prices low.

"With the cheap gas and the low load growth and the oversupply conditions, it's been a bloodbath for folks in the wholesale market," Mainzer said.

Mainzer told the council that BPA needs to be willing to critically examine certain assets and determine if they are economically viable. Connolly, as asset manager, tells me the Snake River dams are.

He said breaching the dams could be detrimental to BPA's business and possibly the investments it makes in fish programs.

Still, the agency will stand behind whatever decision comes from the court-ordered environmental impact study on the dams, due in 2020.