SPOKANE — More work needs to be done to determine the cost and impact on the region’s power grid in the next 30 to 50 years if four dams on the Snake River are removed, experts say.
The Washington State Democrats Ag and Rural Caucus held a forum July 26 in Spokane about the effects of possible removal of the Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite dams on the regional power grid.
Environmental groups have for years called for removal of the dams, citing their impacts on federally protected salmon. Lately orcas have been added to list of impacted species. Agriculture groups say removing the dams won’t have the positive effects on fish the groups seek but will hurt the power grid and river transportation.
Ben Kujala, power planning division director for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, said he has not seen a compelling study that looks far enough into the future at the “extremely uncertain” costs of removing or replacing the four dams.
“A lot of people point to studies about the Lower Snakes that are 10 years old,” he said. “There’s no way those studies have any relevance to what we’re looking at today.”
Even the value of the dams last year doesn’t determine what their value will be in the next 20 years, Kujala said.
All stakeholders need to be involved in the discussion, he said.
Removal of the dams is included in a draft environmental impact statement, slated to be released in February, said Rob Petty, power forecasting and planning manager at the Bonneville Power Administration. Costs will become clearer then, he said.
The agencies today are not necessarily studying the dams’ impacts on the rest of the western power grid, Kujala said.
Five states, including California and Washington, are moving into 100% “clean” energy, not using natural gas.
California is slated to remove 45% of its natural gas power generation by 2045, Kujala said. Bonneville Power Administration buys power from California.
“They don’t know if they’re going to pay $10 or $1,500 for that power,” he said. “That’s a really big range of ‘What does it cost to replace something like the lower Snake River dams?’”
Removing the dams would require more generation elsewhere on the grid.
“That replacement is more than likely going to come from thermal plants, unless you do something very intentional to make sure it’s not,” he said. “That means you’re going to have more greenhouse gas emissions in the Western grid from removal.”
It’s possible to remove the dams and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Kujala said, but it would require a different approach and be more expensive.
“I think this would be a discouraging conversation to anyone who says, ‘We’ve got to take the dams out,’” said caucus chairman Don Schwerin.
The caucus is willing to consider dam removal for political, biological or economic reasons, but wants to be sure mitigations are in place before it happens, Schwerin said.
Schwerin said some advocates of keeping the dams have protested even discussing their removal.
“It’s irresponsible for this region not to talk about this, it’s irresponsible to assume that we have some political super-armor that’s going to insulate us,” he said. “We have to look at these questions and try to anticipate what would happen and get that resolved.”
The caucus previously discussed the impact of dam removal on fish passage in April.
The caucus will next discuss the impacts of removing the dams on barge and rail transportation. The meeting has not been scheduled. Schwerin said he hopes to hold it in the Colfax, Wash., area.