I’ve worked in the Northwest on energy-related issues the past 30 years, the last three at Northwest RiverPartners as executive director. The reason I’ve stayed in the energy field is because energy intersects with so many important issues, including the environment and climate change, public safety and health, and social equity. Everything is connected. I’m part of a two-person office with my colleague Austin Rohr, who manages our social media and supports our other communications efforts.
When I started here, the plan was to build on our strong foundation and help Northwest RiverPartners become a top-tier advocacy organization. Through the support of our members, we are getting ever closer to that goal, expanding into social and digital media, government affairs and community engagement. We are moving the needle! I believe in the mission and love getting to work with the utilities, tribes, ag organizations and our other partners across the Northwest.
I love biking, but I’m hesitant to use the term “avid cyclist” because I’m slower than the avid cyclists I know. Still, one of my favorite things is to go on long rides in different Northwest locales. This September, my wife, Jennifer, and I will celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. I proposed to her at Disneyland, in front of Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and we were married in Portland’s tallest building.
This past summer, my daughter, Emily, and I took a circuitous road trip from Phoenix to Vancouver, Washington, and back again. We camped along the way, and visited Joshua Tree National Park, Morrow Bay, Redwood National Park, Glacier National Park, Grand Teton National Park and Arches National Park. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
What is Northwest RiverPartners?
It is a hydropower advocacy group that represents not-for-profit utilities across the Pacific Northwest. Founded in 2005 as the Coalition for Smart Salmon Recovery, the original mission was to be a strong voice for hydropower. Our new mission is to lead the charge for the Northwest to realize its clean energy potential, with hydroelectricity as the cornerstone. This new mission is better aligned with the values of the communities we serve. A climate imperative makes hydropower essential.
What are specific challenges?
I joke I should have the easiest job in the world. Hydropower produces close to 90% of the region’s renewable energy. It is the most affordable energy source in the region, thanks to investments made decades ago. As a result, the Pacific Northwest has the least carbon-intensive and most affordable electric grid in the United States.
But candidly, this is a challenging job because there are such diverse and heartfelt opinions surrounding energy choices. Some people simply believe rivers shouldn’t be harnessed and would prefer a return to a natural state. Others believe dams are critical to fighting climate change.
There is broader agreement that salmon hold a sacred place in the Pacific Northwest and deserve to be protected. Where we differ is in determining the appropriate policies. Unfortunately, there is sufficient uncertainty in salmon science so everyone can safely hold onto their preconceived notions.
Another challenge is the financial wherewithal of anti-dam groups. Advocacy groups that submitted comments in favor of breaching the lower Snake River dams had combined assets and revenues in 2020 of close to $1.6 billion. These groups are extremely influential and effective.
What is the current state of native fish?
There are mixed signals regarding their health. Since the government started counting adult salmon returning to the Columbia River in the late 1930s, salmon populations have increased on a decade-by-decade basis, which is a good sign.
However, smolt-to-adult return rates—which measure the number of adults returning as a percentage of the juvenile population—have greatly declined since the 1970s. This is nearly uniform across the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, and includes salmon that originate from free-flowing rivers and rivers with dams.
The fact we have larger adult populations, but lower return rates, means we have relied on salmon hatcheries to make up the difference. Many hatcheries are operated by Native American tribes with strong expertise in raising juvenile salmon.
Still, there is reason to be concerned over declining ocean survival rates. Many people blame the warming, acidifying ocean that is changing the balance between predators and prey. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries study last year indicates if ocean temperatures increase at predicted levels, key populations of chinook may go functionally extinct by 2060.
Can fish and dams coexist?
Many people are unaware salmon populations were nearly decimated due to commercial overharvesting before the first federal dam was built on the Columbia River in 1938. Most people who know that history don’t necessarily blame the dams for the decline in salmon, but feel the dams may be to blame for salmon populations not rebounding to pre-commercial levels.
Because so little is known about salmon during their ocean life cycle, it’s difficult to know why so few are returning to our West Coast rivers. However, the verified decline in survival for key salmon populations—which coincides with what the United Nations refers to as a period of 50 years of unabated ocean warming—legitimately calls into question whether the dams are to blame for poor salmon returns.
A case can be made that salmon won’t make it without the carbon-free energy provided by the dams. If the greatest threat to salmon is the warming ocean, removing the region’s most prolific source of clean energy is a step in the wrong direction.
What would it mean to ratepayers and the environment if dams were removed?
An environmental impact statement completed by federal agencies in 2020 determined the cost of replacing the carbon-free generating capabilities of the lower Snake River dams would cost $16 billion over a 20-year period. To put it in percentage terms, it means the Bonneville Power Administration—the agency that markets the energy from the federal dams in the Pacific Northwest—would have to raise its power supply rates by about 50%. Literally millions of people across the Pacific Northwest could anticipate a 25% increase in their electricity bills.
The same report indicated that even if the lower Snake River dams were replaced by solar power plus batteries, we would see an increase of roughly 1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year because we would have to rely more often on existing fossil-fueled generation to make up for the loss.
Is a plan to breach dams a workable option and politically realistic?
Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, introduced a concept last year that would have required the federal government to provide $33.5 billion to remove the lower Snake River dams and replace the many benefits the dams provide to our region.
The concept was embraced by groups that want to see dams removed, but didn’t get much support from the Northwest congressional delegation, perhaps because it didn’t include legislative language, which meant it lacked critical details. Many stakeholders that would have been affected by the plan didn’t support it for a multitude of reasons. Washington Republicans Rep. Dan Newhouse and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers were both outspoken opponents.
Northwest RiverPartners appreciated the intent of what Simpson was trying to achieve. His proposal tried to capture the immense value the dams bring to society. However, we could not support his concept because the lower Snake River dams are too important to the region’s decarbonization objectives. The region is already struggling with its efforts to safely replace the roughly 35% of its generation resources that are fossil-fueled, and we can expect even more demand for electricity in the future as policies are adopted to electrify transportation and heating in buildings.
Why is hydropower critical to meeting clean energy goals?
Intermittent renewable resources—such as wind and solar power—are great at providing clean energy, but rely on the minute-to-minute and day-to-day variations of their respective fuel supplies (wind and sunshine). In other words, they aren’t great for ensuring sufficient energy is available when we need it most.
Hydropower has the ability to meet peak energy needs and fill in the gaps when wind and solar aren’t producing energy because dams have the ability to hold back water for periods of peak demand. They can then release the stored water past hydroelectric turbines to generate electricity.
It’s important our energy future isn’t just clean, but affordable for vulnerable communities and reliable for public safety. Last year’s heat dome across the Pacific Northwest is an important reminder. Temperature records were shattered and more than 800 people died. Those numbers likely would have been much worse if the grid had failed. BPA said the lower Snake River dams were critical to keeping the lights on and air conditioners going.
Why are educational initiatives, such as “Our Power Is Water,” important?
Our polling shows the more people know about hydropower, the more likely they are to support it. The rub is hydropower dams are less visible than solar panels on your neighbor’s rooftop. Our polling showed younger adults are less familiar with hydropower than their parents and grandparents’ generations, so it wasn’t surprising they are less supportive of hydropower as a clean energy resource.
With the support of our members, in 2020 we embarked on a journey to develop a digital media campaign that would educate this younger audience about the benefits of hydropower. We’ve gained a lot of hydropower supporters the past two years.