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NW Fishletter #364, December 5, 2016
 NWEC Panel Explores Replacing Power From Lower Snake River Dams
A panel convened at the Nov. 17 NW Energy Coalition conference in Portland explored options and pitfalls associated with replacing power from the lower Snake River dams, should the dams be removed.
The panel, moderated by NWEC board member Joseph Bogaard, was charged with considering only the value of the dams' energy system and impacts to it, and not irrigation, navigation, recreation or other values.
The four dams on the lower Snake--Ice Harbor, Lower Monumental, Little Goose and Lower Granite--have a collective nameplate generating capacity of 3,033 aMW and a combined average yearly output of about 1,075 aMW, said John Fazio, senior power systems analyst for the Northwest Power and Conservation Council and a presenter on the Nov. 17 panel.
Joining Fazio on the panel were NWEC policy director Wendy Gerlitz and Northwest Requirements Utilities CEO Roger Gray, whose group represents 33 small BPA customers.
Gerlitz told the panel that the May 2016 federal court decision rejecting the Columbia-Snake River BiOp created a new opportunity to explore more economical and environmentally beneficial strategies for the regional energy system.
Ruling that the BiOp violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the court ordered a new EIS on hydro-system operations and alternatives likely to bring about salmon recovery.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon's opinion suggested an EIS that included evaluation of dam removal on the lower Snake might "break through the status quo." He gave the BPA, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation five years to complete the EIS.
In assessing the value of the lower Snake River projects, "we have to take into account not only the amount and price of energy but also the amount of sustained peaking capacity they provide and the contribution of automatic generation control or of load-following that would have to be replaced if these dams went away," Fazio said.
Joseph Bogaard, Wendy Gerlitz, Roger Gray and John Fazio. Credit: NWEC
The lower Snake dams provide ancillary services ranging from automatic generation control to spinning reserves to load following, he said.
Depending on how you replace them, both Gray and Fazio emphasized, there are consequences to the transmission system.
Hydro from the Snake River dams helps integrate wind and other renewable resources, Gray said.
"We need to understand the value of this integration. These resources may be important to inter-regional energy exchange value as well as to the public-utility subscribers," he said.
However, Gerlitz countered that no data from BPA actually documents use of the lower Snake dams for load following, integration or the other services Fazio and Gray described.
She said it's known these dams have very limited storage capacity and produce most of their output during the spring months when wind is also plentiful.
"In that situation, are the dams integrating or competing with wind?" she asked. "If they are competing with wind, are they working to bring market prices down?
"If these dams are being used for energy exchanges or integration," she continued, "to what extent? And what is the value of these services? We don't know the answers. We haven't seen these data."
Gray offered it is possible to determine what services these plants have provided and to figure out the technical replacements.
He and other panelists said the Western EIM, demand response, energy efficiency, distributed energy and renewables are probably part of a replacement package. Gerlitz underscored that the region wouldn't be replacing the lower Snake dams with a single technology.
"The alternatives come down to costs," Gray said. The Snake River dams are inexpensive plants today.
Several audience members countered that the economic and environmental costs of keeping the dams were not trivial.
"The cost of keeping those dams going, including some scheduled giant refurbishing, will be in the hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars," Steve Weiss, a NWEC consultant, said.
Dealing with the Endangered Species Act is also a significant cost, Gray said.
NWEC estimated in an August 2015 report that replacing power from the lower Snake dams with carbon-free energy sources would cost about a dollar a month per Northwest household, Gerlitz said.
The panelists agreed that whether or not the lower Snake dams are coming out, the energy world is rapidly changing.
In about five years, Fazio said, the region will lose Colstrip units 1 and 2 and one unit of the Centralia coal-fired power plant. He also mentioned flood control in Canada changing in 2024, and a regional shift toward summer peaking.
Lynn Best, Seattle City Light director of environmental affairs and NWEC board member, said her experience in western Washington indicated hydro is less predictable than it used to be. "Loads are shifting," she said. "Winter load is going down, while summer will probably increase.
"Shouldn't we look at what we actually need and what new resources would do for us 20 years from now when the hydro regime is really different?" she asked.
Gerlitz said it is important to recognize now is the time to figure this out "because we have the energy resources now."
Fazio added that the power system is only becoming more complex.
"There will be more rooftop solar, more wind and other renewable resources," he said. "We have to look at the smart grid and other ways to use the internet to help us."
The system is more multifaceted than removing and replacing 1,000 MW, Gerlitz said. "It's not simply a matter of building a gas plant and knowing what the cost is."
She said good answers are still needed to these questions: How valuable are the energy outputs and services of the four lower Snake River dams? How valuable are they in the context of salmon recovery and climate change?
"The process that was launched by Judge Simon's order is going to try and get at the questions of impacts on the energy system and salmon, and the alternatives," Gray said.
"We don't know what the scope of the EIS will be yet, but we want to know," he said. "The intention of the NEPA process is to answer these big questions."
Gerlitz cautioned that as the region goes down this path, the region must not tolerate a "subpar or outdated analysis."
"The analysis needs to be very cutting edge, the best of the best. Everyone using energy has a vested interest in this analysis," she said.
"We have to get to the right answer," Gray concluded. "As we look at replacement power, we have to look at everything--reliability, resilience. The question queued up here is a question bigger than the Snake River." -Laura Berg
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