It probably escaped your notice, but Aug. 23 was National Hydropower Day. (It’s OK, we forgot to send a card to our favorite dam, too.)
But we haven’t missed this notable anniversary: The Snohomish Public Utility District observes its 70th year in operation today; and at the same time marks its long relationship with the Bonneville Power Administration, the nonprofit federal agency responsible for taking the electricity from Northwest hydropower dams and other generation projects and sending it down its transmission lines to more than 350,000 Snohomish PUD customers.
The BPA, largely from the dams on rivers in Washington state, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, provides about 27 percent of the electricity generated for nearly 14 million people in the Northwest, but that percentage jumps to about 82 percent of the supply for the Snohomish PUD, the BPA’s largest public utility customer among more than 150 other public and corporate utilities, cooperatives, municipalities and other customers.
That long relationship comes largely from their shared origin, born out of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal efforts to electrify rural areas and provide power and irrigation throughout the West. The BPA takes its name from the Bonneville Dam, built in 1938, that spans the Columbia River about 30 miles upriver from Portland, where the BPA is headquartered.
Plentiful hydropower is largely why Washington state energy customers enjoy the lowest price for electricity in the nation, according to a recent USA Today ranking.
And it’s why hydropower and a steadily growing portfolio of solar, wind and other renewable energy projects have prompted local governments — including Edmonds, Everett and Snohomish County — and the state Legislature to require that electricity sold here eventually come 100 percent from renewable, noncarbon-emitting sources. The state’s mandate, passed earlier this year, requires the elimination of coal-fired electricity by the end of 2025 and 100 percent generation from renewable sources by 2045.
The City of Edmonds was the first locally to set a similar goal, just two years ago, even amid doubts it was achievable. Earlier this year, the PUD was able to deliver 100 percent renewable electricity to all Edmonds municipal buildings.
Even with challenges ahead, chief administrators for the Snohomish PUD and the BPA, in a conversation last week with The Herald Editorial Board, expressed optimism for meeting the deadline.
John Haarlow, who is nearing his first year as the PUD’s chief executive, after serving as its assistant general manager, notes that the PUD already is close to the mark, able to offer its customers electricity that is 98 percent from hydropower and other renewable resources, including the solar-powered microgrid project in Arlington.
Elliott Mainzer, BPA’s administrator since 2014, said he shared Haarlow’s optimism but noted that the requirement ramps up the importance of the planning and study that BPA, utilities and others must undertake now and in coming years.
The waters flowing through dams are a constant, but there are other variables to assess, both men said, coming from the demand and supply sides of the power equation.
Even as coal-fired plants go offline, the increase in electricity from natural gas, solar and wind has largely replaced it, a recent report from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council notes. But government mandates for clean electricity — especially as other Western states make similar requirements — and the growth in sales of electric vehicles and hybrids are likely to increase demand.
Snohomish PUD’s own examination of electrical vehicle sales shows an increase in their adoption by county drivers. As of this summer there were about 5,000 electric vehicles, up from less than 3,000 the year before. The PUD’s medium-range forecast expects a nearly 10-fold increase to 40,000 EVs by 2029, though a higher-range estimate predicts the number could near 100,000.
That increase in electrical plug-in vehicles, Haarlow said, offers its own opportunity. One of the drawbacks to both solar and wind power are the periods when their electrical production flags. Utilities, like Snohomish PUD, are looking at battery storage as a solution to meet demand on darker days or when the winds aren’t blowing. But electrical vehicles, he said, when they’re not charging, offer the power grid a new battery storage source that can be drawn from when needed.
For the brief and infrequent periods when solar and wind production isn’t sufficient to meet demand, Mainzer sees a need to keep natural-gas plants ready to step in. Maintaining the grid’s reliability, he said, is important to building and maintaining customer support for renewable energy resources.
The BPA also is continuing its work, Mainzer said, to balance power production with the environmental concern for salmon. After years of lawsuits regarding how much water to spill from dams in order to protect salmon, Mainzer said a recent agreement among Washington, Oregon, the BPA and other groups appears to be working to better manage spill rates that help salmon. As well, the BPA is continuing work on improvements to dams and turbines that reduce harm to fish.
The federal agency also is watchful of an environmental review of the impacts on salmon from the four Snake River Dams as well as a public process required this year by state lawmakers intended to consider the impacts and opportunities were the dams to be removed. This comes, the BPA chief noted, as the agency must make plans for maintenance and equipment replacement at the four dams in the state’s southeast corner.
Climate change also must be factored in. While warmer winters might decrease seasonal power demand, Haarlow said, there also are concerns for what a changing Northwest climate means for precipitation, snow and glacier melt and how those will effect the competition for energy and water supplies.
We’re a couple decades shy of celebrating hydropower’s century of power in Washington state and the Northwest. It’s a relationship with admitted impacts but one that has helped industry and agriculture thrive here. And it’s one that will be a big part of how the Northwest addresses climate change and protection of our environment.
As American folksinger Woody Guthrie sang in celebration of those who built its dams, “Roll on, Columbia, roll on.”