Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson's multibillion-dollar plan to end the decades-long legal battle over salmon restoration in the Columbia Basin is a "staggering proposition" that could reshape the energy landscape in the Pacific Northwest and bring an end to nearly two decades of litigation.
The proposal, which will officially be released Feb. 7, is said to be the culmination of years of work by Simpson and his staff. It's the first proposal in the long fight over restoring salmon runs in the basin to call for breaching the four lower Snake River dams, and is backed with enough money to mitigate the potential economic loss that would be felt across several industries and communities in the region.
Clearing Up has not seen the proposal, but has spoken with nearly a dozen public power executives who were briefed by Simpson's office over the past few weeks. Most people interviewed for this story asked not to be identified in exchange for speaking freely. In the past few days, Lindsay Slater, Simpson's chief of staff, briefed Northwest Requirements Utilities, the Public Power Council and BPA Administrator John Hairston on the proposal.
What we know is the proposal calls for creating a $32 billion Columbia Basin Fund that would finance breaching the dams and compensate irrigators, farmers, barge operators, electric customers and communities that rely on the dams, including Lewiston, Idaho, and Clarkston and the Tri-Cities in Washington.
Funding for the proposal is likely to be included an upcoming green energy infrastructure/climate bill that the Biden administration is said to be developing.
Sources said the proposal sets a target date for breaching the first two dams in 2030 and the remaining two dams in 2032.
The proposal, which is still evolving, also earmarks at least $10 billion to replace the 1,000 aMW of hydro generation from the dams with clean energy resources and new transmissions lines.
While the proposal likely includes copious amounts of new wind, solar and battery storage projects, several sources said it also calls out financing of one or more pumped storage projects and deploying advanced small modular nuclear reactors.
Sources said the plan includes developing some new natural gas-fired facilities, but only if needed for reliability of the system.
Other ideas floated in the proposal include a $600 million cap on BPA's annual fish and wildlife costs and a 35-year moratorium on litigation.
The proposal also includes a 35-year extension on FERC licenses for private dams that produce 5 aMW or more, which would directly impact Idaho Power's ongoing relicensing of the Hells Canyon complex and provide other dam owners with assurance that their hydro facilities won't be targeted for breaching.
The proposal calls for creating a new tribal and state fish commission to oversee fish and wildlife spending in the basin. The new commission would manage $600 million in funding provided by BPA.
Most public power officials in the region where just learning of the plan by Feb. 5, but those who had been briefed describe it as having the potential to rewrite energy policy in the region and bring significant changes to BPA.
Many people who spoke with Clearing Up compared the significance of the proposal to the Northwest Power Act, some of which would have to be amended to make the plan work.
"It's a staggering proposition," one person familiar with the proposal said. "The congressman and Lindsay are trying to come up with something to end the Salmon Wars. It's a big concept, and I think it just comes down to what one's vision of the future is."
Clearing Up reached out to Scott Simms, executive director of the Public Power Council, after PPC members were briefed by Slater on Feb. 4.
"Everyone in the Northwest power sector should recognize this is a highly complex and multi-dimensional concept, and in order to fully understand it and the associated implications, risks, opportunities and consequences, the Public Power Council is embarking on a structured and detailed analysis," Simms said in a prepared statement. "This approach aligns with our core mission in service to Northwest public power, and our plan is to partner with our members to analyze—at least initially—four key areas: legislative, legal, economic and generation resources."
For the past 25 years, Northwest public power utilities have stood shoulder to shoulder in defense of the lower Snake River dams. That solidarity will likely be tested by Simpson's proposal, many sources said.
Roger Gray, president and CEO of PNGC Power, told Clearing Up he would oppose dam breaching as a "stand alone concept," but said the region needs to weigh the risks of Simpson's proposal with the status quo.
"The risk of the status quo is that public power's supply is controlled by a federal court and packs of attorneys," Gray said. "I don't want to stake my future on that."
In November, the Public Power Council released a white paper extolling the value of the Snake River dams.
"The four LSRD hydroelectric projects are a crucial component of BPA's low cost, carbon-free power supply to public power and the Northwest as a whole," the paper states. "Every thorough study on this topic has shown uniformly that removal of the LSRDs would result in some combination of massive increases to regional power supply costs, increases in carbon emissions, impacts on other critical areas of the economy and increased risk of blackouts."
The four projects provide over 2,000 MW of sustained winter peaking capability, and one quarter of BPA's total reserves-holding capability for most of the year. The levelized incremental cost of this power is approximately $12/MWh, or about $100 million per year, the PPC study states.
"In contrast, based on the latest information from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, the levelized costs of new wind and solar would be at least 2-3 times higher—and neither of these resources have the operational attributes of the LSRDs that support grid reliability, integration of other renewables, and load following capabilities."
The white paper also said "replacing the LSRDs with new carbon free resources would cost at least $800 million annually with a portfolio of 3,306 MW of solar, 1,144 MW of wind, and 2,515 MW of storage products. For context, this would represent over $9 billion in net present value over 25 years at an 8 percent cost of capital."
The proposal is also said to call for increasing BPA's borrowing authority to $15 billion from its current $7.7 billion, remove BPA from fish management obligations, and cap the administration's fish and wildlife spending at $600 million that would be paid to a new tribal/state fish commission. BPA could also get $5 billion in compensation for lost power revenue from spill.
The proposal also addresses the idea of BPA joining a regional transmission organization and getting some relief from its residential exchange agreement, which expires this year.
"It attacks all the big problems that affect BPA, which will become big disputes very soon," one source said.
"We respect Congressman Simpson, and appreciate his interest in salmon recovery in the Columbia River Basin," BPA Administrator John Hairston said in a prepared statement emailed to Clearing Up after he was briefed on Feb. 5. "BPA looks forward to more conversations about this concept, and the region's environmental and economic future."