Comment: Hydro remains key to our next ‘Great Electrification’

Moving to a carbon-free electrical grid will rely on all sources of clean energy, especially hydropower.

By Kurt Miller / For The Herald

As we embark on a Great Electrification to decarbonize our economy, consider the first one 80 years ago. Campaigning in Portland, then-presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt pushed for Northwest hydroelectricity: “This vast water power can be of incalculable value to this whole section of the country.”

Today, the Pacific Northwest enjoys the lowest energy burden and the most reliable, least carbon intensive grid in the nation.

Achieving tomorrow’s zero-carbon electrical grid is more challenging. The Northwest generates 64,000 megawatts of electricity from all sources. Carbon-free hydroelectricity accounts for more than half. Fossil generation? About 30 percent.

Further de-carbonizing our economy while maintaining grid reliability and affordability is a mammoth undertaking. The Nature Conservancy’s latest analysis concludes the West needs to build up to 250,000 additional megawatts of generation, covering a land mass up to half New Mexico’s size to meet 2050 goals. Other credible analyses, based on climate laws from a smaller subset of Western states, put the number between 94,000 to 160,000 additional megawatts.

Some dismiss hydroelectricity’s value in achieving those goals. We see this tendency in calls to remove productive hydro facilities and in devaluing hydro’s contribution to keeping families safe during extreme weather events. It’s a mistaken position.

It’s hydropower dams that West Coast leaders identified as the next electrification’s foundation. The best scientific research shows hydropower forming the Northwest’s clean energy backbone in confronting drought and other climate change impacts. Northwest dams provided thousands of megawatts to Californians during September’s extreme heat event, while still meeting regional needs.

Our second electrification is one of humanities’ greatest challenges. It’s infinitely harder if we degrade hydro assets. Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray reached that conclusion, too, after studying removing four Lower Snake River dams.

An all-in approach is required. Solar, demand response, next-generation nuclear, wind, conservation, hydrogen, battery and pump storage, geothermal, and tidal all have roles. None, on its own, meets our needs. Only combined with existing hydro resources do we have a chance of meeting our climate goals.

My organization supports:

Equity in energy generation: All generation has impacts. To meet climate and equity goals, we must address burdens associated with energy generation, particularly for our region’s tribal nations.

Maintenance of existing carbon-free infrastructure: Crisis was barely averted during recent extreme weather events. Decommissioning hydroelectric assets while ending fossil generation is a recipe for disaster.

Grid resiliency and expanded transmission: Efforts at decarbonization are threatened without proper focus on modernizing our transmission systems.

Conservation: We join in acknowledging the cheapest kilowatt is often the one you don’t generate. But there aren’t 94,000 to 250,000 megawatts of conservation to be found. Let’s conserve. But understand it’s one component.

Salmon recovery: Climate changes to ocean environments threaten salmon survival. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration studies indicate rising sea temperatures may lead to a 90 percent decline in chinook salmon runs, regardless of actions to improve freshwater survival. Continue making freshwater progress. But we must halt climate change in the ocean to stop extinction.

Permitting and licensing: Our historic challenge means we must build at a historic pace. We’re not close. We should reform how we support energy generation siting. Community concerns need to be heard, but the approval process must be streamlined.

Hydropower fueled the 20th century’s Great Electrification. It’s the foundation for meeting today’s greatest challenge. We can lead the world in decarbonization, but only if we understand the essential contribution hydropower makes to the cause.

Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, representing community-owned electric utilities and other supporters of clean, affordable energy and river transportation across the Northwest.

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