Pro and con: Skykomish River dam

Yes (Jump to the no argument)

Sunset Falls is an investment in our future

By Steve Klein

In Snohomish County, we’re blessed with natural surroundings that few regions on Earth can match. It’s one of the reasons more and more people want to live, work and raise their families here.

We’re also fortunate that some of these resources can be harnessed to produce the electricity modern society requires, with minimal impact to the environment we all cherish.

At the Snohomish County PUD, our commitment to environmental stewardship is backed by action — every day. As a customer-owned public utility, our job is to provide reliable electricity at the lowest possible cost while maintaining long-term financial stability, and we’re committed to doing it right.

We’re guided by a Climate Change Policy adopted by our Board of Commissioners, one of the first such policies in the region. It directs us to serve our growing customer base through cost-effective conservation and a diverse mix of clean, renewable technologies — in other words, sources that are free of fossil fuels.

We’ve been an industry leader in conservation for more than 30 years. Since 1980, PUD conservation programs have saved more than 146 average megawatts of electricity. That’s enough to power about 109,500 homes, more than a third of the housing units in Snohomish County.

On the generation side, more than 85 percent of our supply comes from long-term contracts with the Bonneville Power Administration for electricity produced mostly by Columbia River hydro projects. We’re also a national leader among public utilities when it comes to wind power. We have long-term contracts with three wind projects that in 2012 accounted for nearly 7 percent of our power supply.

Much of the rest of our supply comes from three PUD-owned and operated hydroelectric projects right here in Snohomish County: The Henry M. Jackson, Youngs Creek and Woods Creek projects. (The Youngs Creek Project, located a few miles south of Sultan, received Renewable Energy World magazine’s 2012 Hydro Project of the Year award.)

Our power portfolio is rounded out by other local renewable sources, including solar, biomass and landfill gas facilities.

We also continue to actively explore potential sources of geothermal energy right here in Western Washington, are seeking licensing for a demonstration project to generate energy from tides off Whidbey Island, and are working on an industry-leading solution to storing energy so we can make even greater use of wind and solar power despite their intermittent nature.

By necessity, meeting the county’s future electricity needs with only clean, renewable, cost-effective sources requires us to envision a future portfolio that contains many smaller projects. There won’t be any more major hydro projects on the scale of the Grand Coulee or Bonneville dams.

In studying smaller projects, the PUD puts a premium on those that have minimal environmental impact and are located in our own backyard in order to minimize transmission costs and provide jobs right here at home.

That’s why, working with federal agencies and a range of stakeholders, we’re studying the feasibility of a low-impact hydro project on the South Fork Skykomish River near Index. If constructed, the Sunset Fish Passage &Energy Project would generate an average of 13.7 megawatts, enough to power about 10,275 homes.

Let me emphasize that no decision has been made to build this project. The PUD Board of Commissioners and staff are in the midst of a rigorous study phase, performing due diligence and listening carefully to citizen input.

If it’s built, the project would feature a run-of-the-river hydroelectric facility, meaning it would not resemble a traditional, concrete dam. When flows are beyond those needed to sustain fish, a portion of the water would be drawn from a naturally occurring pool at a bend in the river; if required, the pool level may be augmented by an inflatable weir that rises to a maximum of 7 feet from the base of the river, and lies flat on the river bed when deflated. An underground tunnel would channel water 2,200 feet to a partially underground powerhouse, where the water would be returned to the river.

The project also would include critical upgrades to a Washington Department of Fish &Wildlife trap-and-haul facility, which transports migrating fish from below the impassable barrier of Sunset Falls to 90-plus miles of otherwise inaccessible spawning habitat upstream. These upgrades would provide stability for operations and maintenance of the facility for many years to come, improving the overall health of local fish runs.

You might wonder why the PUD would consider investing an estimated $133 million to build a project of this size. Think of it like a mortgage on a home that will stay in the family for generations. Once it’s paid off, it continues to provide great value at relatively low cost. In the case of a low-impact hydro project, maintenance and operation costs are very low, and the fuel used to generate electricity is abundant and free. And having PUD ownership of such projects helps shield our customer-owners over the long term from price swings in volatile energy markets.

The site offers other potential benefits, too. It’s located near an existing electric transmission line, saving on infrastructure costs. And a local project means local jobs.

And like other hydro projects, it’s a great fit timing-wise, supplying greater amounts of electricity when it’s needed most — during the winter heating season, which also happens to be a time when wind generation is low.

Some might ask whether such an energy investment would be better directed elsewhere, such as toward thousands of solar-power systems. Well, Snohomish PUD already has the most aggressive solar program in the Northwest. Generous PUD incentives have helped install rooftop systems that are saving more than 2 average megawatts of electricity — enough to power about 1,500 homes.

Solar is an important part of our energy future, as is wind. But the sun isn’t always shining, and the wind isn’t always blowing. Hydro, on the other hand, can be counted on to produce electricity when it’s most needed.

There is no silver bullet that will meet our future energy needs. The most prudent approach is to build a portfolio with a multiplicity of clean, renewable sources.

Population growth presents many infrastructure challenges, and often difficult choices. But local, low-impact, renewable hydro projects — done right, the way we do them — offer a win-win-win solution: accommodating the needs of growth, at a reasonable price, with minimal impact to the environment that makes Snohomish County such a great place to live.

Steve Klein is general manager of the Snohomish County PUD.


Proposed project isn’t worth the cost

By Eric Teegarden

The Washington State Chapter of the Sierra Club, American Whitewater, American Rivers, and many who live on the South Fork of the Skykomish River are strongly opposed to Snohomish PUD’s proposal to build a low-power dam near Sunset Falls. As an energy professional and as Chair of the Energy Committee for the Snohomish Group of the Sierra Club, I, too, oppose this low-power dam. As a PUD ratepayer, I have major concerns about our Snohomish PUD’s spending ratepayer funds to “research” and market a project that would degrade a site known by some as the “Yosemite of Washington State.”

Why should PUD ratepayers care whether this dam is built or not?

1) New low-power dams are not necessary for Snohomish PUD’s energy production.

2) Sunset Falls is an unsuitable location for a dam.

3) This is a poor way to invest an estimated $170 million or more of our public utility funds.

Why are new low-power dams not needed as a SnoPUD energy resource? Snohomish PUD’s own estimates (“Snohomish PUD Load and Existing/Committed Resources, December 2011”) indicate that, with conservation methods already in place, PUD will have sufficient power generation, even with current levels of development, until 2021.

Why is Sunset Falls an unsuitable site for a dam?

Consider these criteria for building a dam applied to Sunset Falls:

Will it provide adequate power generation vs. the initial construction costs?

No. Although the nameplate capacity for the Sunset Falls Dam is 30 MW, the actual generation will be seasonal and limited by minimum stream flows about half the year. So the actual output will be effectively about 13.7 MW. Actual construction costs could be higher than estimated due to unknowns associated with many months of blasting Index granite and the risks and challenges of constructing one side of the dam into sediment.

Would construction and operation have low impacts to the local environment?

No. All phases of construction and operation of this dam would cause serious detrimental impacts on the local environment. Sunset Falls is an integral part of one of the last free-flowing rivers in the Pacific Northwest and flows through the Wild Sky Wilderness just miles away. Thirty months of dynamiting and hauling out rock to construct this dam will create noise and debris pollution for years. How will U.S. 2 hold up under tens of thousands of repeated loads from heavy trucks? Operating this dam would require de-watering over a mile of the river upstream of Sunset Falls — a devastating impact.

Would it receive steady flow with minimal sediment and debris load?

No. The Skykomish is a glacially fed, seasonal river with minimal output from late summer to early winter. The South Fork is loaded with sediment and at times even whole trees.

Will this dam have low operation and maintenance costs?

No. Any dam built at this location will undergo extensive abuse from high sediment loads and debris. Conditions such as these will create extensive wear and tear on mechanical components of the dam (turbines and hydraulic components).

PUD’s initial $170 million investment in this dam would be a “sunk cost” until the dam paid for itself, meaning it would act as a rate cost-driver for years. If the proposed 13.7 MW dam generates about 120 gigawatt hours per year, with current Washington state laws and PUD rates, it would take SnoPUD about 30 years to recoup this investment.

There are better ways to invest our ratepayer dollars in local infrastructure. Our local grid is in dire need of upgrades to improve power distribution and create a smarter network. The goal ought to be to create a more resilient, efficient, and stable power grid.

Greater investment in distributed renewable energy would also accomplish this. Snohomish PUD already has a template for this in place with the award-winning Solar Express Program. It is only a matter of scale: for $170 million, PUD could match the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar installations with a 30 percent grant for up to 35,000 homes. This would provide power for up to 18,000 homes, based on my calculations — comparable to PUD’s claim that the Sunset Falls dam would meet power needs for 10,275 homes. Best of all, 100 percent of the distributed power generated would count toward Washington state Renewable Energy Credits (allowing the PUD to receive four times the value for power generation as conventional power generation). This is home-grown power that is a win-win for us and our environment. In addition, it would create hundreds of local jobs.

Our PUD has spent over $5 million so far “researching” Sunset Falls Dam. It is not too late for Snohomish PUD to abandon this project. Failure to do so could lead to a much bigger problem — an ill-conceived dam that fails to live up to promises and devastates one of our few remaining wild rivers.

There are things associated with a wild river that cannot be monetized. For many, Sunset Falls is priceless. There is no way, once this dam is built, that the falls and the river could ever be restored to their original condition.

Eric Teegarden is chair of the Energy Committee for the Snohomish Group of the Sierra Club.

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