In a unanimous vote on Jan. 23, seven members of the Orcas Power & Light Co-op board rescinded a resolution the board adopted in September opposing removal of the four lower Snake River dams while supporting "effective" actions to restore salmon runs and save endangered southern resident orcas.
"The board is not taking a position on the dams," OPALCO General Manager Foster Hildreth said in a statement following the vote. "Our concern is to provide reliable, affordable and clean power to the 20 islands we serve."
The decision to rescind Resolution 2-19 came after hearing concerns of more than 50 co-op members who wrote letters or emails since November about the resolution—the vast majority of them opposing it.
The Jan. 23 meeting on Lopez Island drew 17 co-op members, and the letters of more than 25 members were included in the board's materials, Suzanne Olson, OPALCO's public relations manager, said in an email to NW Fishletter. Two were in favor of the resolution and the rest were against.
Members of the Orcas Women's Coalition were especially engaged. Norris Carlson, a member of the Coalition's environmental action team, said she found out about the resolution by reading a letter to the editor, and was disappointed her electric co-op had taken a position on the lower Snake River dams without asking its membership. "Why would our power company, in the heart of this crisis, come out against a study of the lower Snake River dams? Come out against any thought of removal?" she asked.
She said she discovered that the resolution was written largely by the Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and believes that it would be used to lobby in favor of retaining the dams when the draft Columbia River System Operations environmental impact statement (EIS) is released in February.
Carlson said the coalition began engaging with the OPALCO board last November, asking them to rescind it, and is thrilled and encouraged that the board listened to its members. "I feel like they did the right thing. I'm very encouraged that they listened, and very encouraged that they want to include more involvement in the community," she said.
She said she's even more encouraged because the board wants to engage with the coalition and other community members to find solutions. "Rescinding this resolution is just removing a barrier to progress," she said. "Now, the question is, let's really look at the ecosystem and the power grid and the compromises they feel like they have to make, and see what other direction we can go, and what progress we can make," she added.
The Northwest Energy Coalition also weighed in, sending a letter to OPALCO on Dec. 18 urging the board to consider its commissioned 2018 study by Energy Strategies finding that energy provided by the dams can be replaced by a portfolio of clean energy resources at little cost, with little or no increase in greenhouse gas emissions, and with an overall improvement in electric system reliability.
The letter was in response to a detailed explanation by OPALCO outlining a number of reasons for supporting the dams, including the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the need to retain hydroelectric power as a carbon-free source as the region shifts to electric transportation.
"When it comes to helping fight salmon-killing climate change, the LSRD are an essential part of the fight to reduce carbon emissions," it states, concluding, "Before we breach a dam, we want to make sure we have a very clean reliable affordable alternative, to keep the lights on and avoid polluting the atmosphere with fossil-fueled power."
NWEC spokesman Sean O'Leary told NW Fishletter in an email, "We're very pleased by the board's decision because it reflects a recognition by board members that salmon and orca extinction is a real threat and that proposed solutions to the challenges posed by dam removal warrant serious consideration." He said like the OPALCO board, NWEC believes that any actions taken to restore salmon and orcas must guarantee continued access to reliable and affordable clean energy.
"The Coalition also congratulates the many OPALCO member-owners and San Juan Island organizations that mobilized to ensure that their utility's position on the issue of salmon and orca restoration and dam removal reflects the community's values," he wrote.
Olson said in an email that the board "continues to be very concerned about the myriad issues surrounding the dams including climate impacts, salmon and species survival, balancing electric capacity to meet load and especially resource deficiencies projected for the near future."
Adopted unanimously in September, the resolution began as a request from the Washington Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which had asked its members to support the continued operation of four lower Snake River dams and oppose removing or breaching them.
A memo from Hildreth to the board posted on the co-op's website noted that the language of OPALCO's resolution differs from the one proposed by WRECA "due to our location in the heart of the Salish Sea and the interdependence of the issues at stake with our daily lives. We cannot tolerate any further decline of our sensitive marine environs or risk the survival of any part of the complex food chain that supports our orca whales."
The resolution—which is now rescinded—lists numerous benefits of the lower Snake River dams and the entire Federal Columbia River Power System, including its carbon-free source of power, the support it provides to intermittent wind and solar generation, the jobs and businesses that rely on low-cost energy, success at improving overall fish runs, and the support for farmers through irrigation and transportation.
"OPALCO supports the whales and our federal hydro system," the resolutions stated. "We oppose the removal of the dams because we don't believe it will solve the problem for our fish and the food chain and may worsen the situation."
Like many of the other resolutions adopted by co-ops and PUDs across the state, OPALCO's board had resolved to support continued operation of all of the Columbia Basin's federal dams, and to oppose spending taxpayer money on Washington state's now completed study looking at the benefits and impacts of both keeping and breaching the four Snake River dams.
OPALCO's resolution further resolved "to support effective actions to restore salmon runs as determined from existing and future BiOps; and [f]urther resolve to support effective actions to save the resident orcas in the Salish Sea."
Hildreth's statement concluded, "We appreciate the engagement of our members—this is how a co-op works—and ask that members stay engaged as we work collectively to address the upcoming challenges of resource adequacy in the region. We need our members more than ever as we navigate the new energy landscape of decarbonization and the impacts of climate change. We must work together for a healthy future."