We Can Replace 1000 Megawatts. We Can’t Replace Salmon And Orcas.

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By Howard Garrett*

Technology is rapidly making the need for complete dependence upon hydroelectric power obsolete, and will help pave the way to remove inadequate dams. Just in the past few weeks Home Depot, Sam’s Club, Costco and Lowes have all offered kits for home installation of solar panels. No installation is needed for temporary use, or you can mount the 40-pound panels to the roof, and drill holes – two per panel – into the rafters. After adding a barrier to prevent leaks and a couple of brackets, the panels are bolted to the roof. These affordable panels even manage to wring energy out of our soggy Pacific Northwest skies, and will offset the power used for our holiday lights, or provide power to that new flat screen TV.

Even so, the government continues to drag its feet on the issue of dam removals on the lower Snake River.

On Nov. 23 Judge James A. Redden held a hearing in Portland that could set the stage for implementation of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) Biological Opinion (BiOp) as law within a few months. The BiOp, written by the Bush administration, would allow dam operation until 2018 despite the dam’s devastating effects on endangered salmon. Along with salmon disaster, the BiOp will lead to likely extinction of endangered Southern Resident Killer Whales, which depend on some of these same salmon for their survival.

A biological opinion is required when federally licensed or federally funded activities, in this case federal hydropower operations on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, might harm a species listed under the Endangered Species Act as endangered or threatened. It is supposed to outline how the responsible agencies will adapt the activity to avoid harming the species. The ESA list includes 13 distinct populations of salmon that spawn in the Columbia and Snake River watersheds, including some chinook runs that are essential for survival of the Southern Resident orca population.

The volumes and varieties of information that make up the BiOp are vast, immensely complex and interwoven with changing climates both earthly and political. This BiOp, with its explicit core assumptions based on massive models of salmon runs responding to shifting conditions, also has implicit foundations: considerations of costs and benefits of barging wheat (as opposed to using rail), and especially assumptions about trends in the ways electric power is generated in the Pacific NW and how it is used.

This BiOp is mostly about securing hydropower, and not salmon, in the Columbia/Snake watershed. It really is more concerned with electricity than anything else. For instance, it proposes to reduce the amount of water currently spilled over the dams at crucial periods of juvenile salmon migration. These finger-length smolts require flowing water to take them to the sea. Even with massive, expensive downstream barging of many smolts, most of them don’t make it, which amounts to the single biggest loss of salmon to the dams. Because court-ordered spill during peak smolt migrations has been a vital part of recent improved returns of salmon and steelhead, Judge Redden seemed surprised by the planned reductions. The spills look like they worked, said Redden. Why change them? “Your honor, that comes with a cost, answered the government’s lead attorney. I’m talking about carbon. The more we spill, the more we are going to have to offset that with natural gas and coal.”

That statement reveals, first, the administration’s inability to see beyond a perpetually strained electric power supply. Hence, not only must the dams remain in place, but even a small mitigation like adding some spill for a few weeks a year takes away too much power from the grid. This vision seems based on panic and devoid of problem-solving imagination. But second, it also reveals the government’s apparent lack of interest in conservation to meet energy demand, even though the NW Power and Conservation Councils 6th Draft Plan relies heavily on conservation to take the place of fossil-fuel-based electricity. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council was created by Congress to give the citizens a stronger voice in determining the future of the electricity generated at, and fish and wildlife affected by, the Columbia River Basin hydropower dams. See http://www.nwcouncil.org/energy/powerplan/6/default.htm

But do we need the hydropower generated by those particular dams? At first glance, which seems to be all the federal government has devoted to the question, one might say yes, as the government did. We need carbon-free power. Coal-fired plants will also need to be replaced if we are serious about slowing down global warming, and we’ll even need to move away from cleaner gas-fired plants, so we’ll need even more replacement energy.

Photo by Howard Garrett

But we don’t need the Snake River dams to produce it. The dams kill salmon, which in turn depletes whole habitats of vital sustenance, including orca habitat. Fortunately there are some very smart people who have worked out how we can have all the juice we need and still let the salmon have the rivers. In a clearly worded, no-jargon description of how it can be done, the NW Energy Coalition says in a recent update to its Bright Future report:

Energy efficiency is the powerhouse. We can save enough energy to meet all normal demand growth, roughly 60% of our total new power needs. An enforceable regionwide target to acquire 340 aMW of low-cost energy efficiency per year through 2050 is a reasonable goal given Northwest utilities already solid energy-saving programs and because saving energy is cheaper and creates more jobs than any other option. Energy efficiency isn’t sexy; it just works.

New clean renewable sources – wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, etc. – will provide the rest of our new power needs. Much of what we need by 2020 is already in the pipeline, mostly in the form of wind power. After 2020, falling costs will likely make solar the growth leader. [See below for more on solar power.]

In parallel, we can create a smart grid to deliver these clean resources. A smart grid will shift from integrating fossil-fueled power with hydropower to integrating dispersed renewable sources in new ways. The transition is already underway, and will be accelerated by new policy innovations and some new transmission lines. And as our cars, trucks and buses go electric, their millions of batteries will act as a giant, dispersed storage system helping to provide back-up for the entire electric grid.

The report goes on to demonstrate how we can replace about 1,000aMW of existing hydropower (the amount produced by the four Snake River dams) with clean sources, thereby rebuilding salmon and the salmon economy.

Upfront financing is critical for small-scale solar installations so we’ll need to overcome some legal hurdles to allow local jurisdictions to provide financing. We’ll also need an energy-efficiency financing bill to pass in the upcoming Washington legislative session (NW Energy Coalition is working on that).

Now the breaking news: In just the past few weeks news of dramatic cost reductions and widespread installation of new thin-film photovoltaic panels have made even NWECs projections seem too conservative. The economic feasibility of a new generation of thin-film photovoltaic solar collectors (Solar’s rapid evolution makes energy planners rethink the grid) on rooftops could alone produce far more electricity than the four lower Snake River dams produce. And, the BBC reports that the cost of installing and owning solar panels will fall even faster than expected, according to new research. Tests show that 90% of existing solar panels last for 30 years, instead of the predicted 20 years, making them more competitive with current power sources.

If we the citizens lobby governments at all levels to mandate efficiency, support renewable energy and promote widespread installation of photovoltaic panels, Snake River salmon will not have to be sacrificed to generate electricity, and Southern Resident orcas may have enough to eat for generations to come.

Next: How Can Dams in Eastern Washington Affect Puget Sound Orcas?

*(Howard Garrett began field studies of Southern Resident orcas in 1981 with the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. With his wife, Susan Berta, he is co-founder of Orca Network, based on Whidbey Island WA. Garrett is author of Orcas In Our Midst and a frequent speaker and writer about orca natural history and habitat protection.)

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