Sunset Falls dam: Balance is possible

Snohomish County’s economic future looks brighter than it has in years.

Boeing’s innovative 777X will be built here, ensuring aerospace jobs for years to come. A major shipyard may soon bring a new industry and hundreds more good-paying jobs to Everett’s waterfront. Puget Sound’s world-leading tech and health-care sectors are thriving.

Such vitality comes with increased demand for the electricity that fuels it. And as society wisely begins to wean itself from carbon-based fossil fuels, the need for electricity to power our cars and trucks will grow, too.

All that presents a challenge for the Snohomish County PUD, which provides electricity to the residents and businesses of Snohomish County and Camano Island. How do we ensure an adequate supply of power, at the lowest possible cost, tapping only clean, renewable sources of energy?

There is no easy, all-encompassing answer. It requires a thoughtful strategy that puts conservation first, followed by a variety of low-impact, renewable generation resources located as close as possible to where the power is needed.

As one part of that strategy, the PUD is studying the feasibility of a low-impact hydropower project at Sunset Falls on the South Fork Skykomish River near Index. Under the eye of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, we’re studying potential effects on river flows, fish, water quality and aesthetics, just to name a few. No decision to proceed can be made until all studies are complete and a license is approved by the FERC.

In a guest commentary last Sunday, three opponents of the project were unwilling to wait for results of this study process before passing judgment. This short-sighted approach would deprive the wider community of a decision that’s based on facts rather than fears.

Here’s one fact: Hydropower is renewable, despite the efforts by some to suggest otherwise. I-937, our state’s clean-energy initiative, generally doesn’t count it because the law was designed to provide a boost for non-traditional renewable sources. Hydro, however, remains one of the cleanest and most cost-effective sources of renewable energy available in the Northwest.

It’s worth mentioning that the PUD is well in compliance with I-937’s renewable-energy mandates. Wind power accounted for 5.5 percent of our power supply in 2012. We’re also tapping solar, biomass and landfill gas, and continue to study tidal and geothermal as future renewable-energy sources. Our projections show that we’re already on track to meet I-937’s requirements at least through 2025, and perhaps through 2030.

In another exciting step toward a clean-energy future, we’re about to begin testing a new model for storing electricity, which would open the door to greater amounts of wind and solar power by addressing their key shortcomings: The wind isn’t always blowing and the sun isn’t always shining.

We’ve long been an industry leader in conservation, with residential and commercial programs that since 1980 have saved enough electricity to power more than a third of the homes in all of Snohomish County.

New hydro megaprojects on the scale of the Columbia River dams aren’t in the region’s future. Small, low-impact hydro projects, however, can make sense as part of a local, clean-energy portfolio for Northwest utilities. And they can be done in harmony with the environment.

Opponents have cited concerns over potential impacts to salmon, and that’s a major focus of our studies. What is known at this point is that significant upgrades to a state Department of Fish and Wildlife trap-and-haul facility would be part of this project. This work would allow for the continued safe transport of migrating salmon to spawning habitat well above Sunset Falls — an impassible barrier for fish.

This is the most cost-effective of a number of projects the PUD has considered building in recent years. Hydro projects can be in operation for many decades, much longer than it takes to pay off construction costs. Once the initial project costs are retired (our estimated investment is $133 million), PUD customers will enjoy the benefits of extremely low maintenance and operations costs, along with free fuel. That contributes to rate stability.

The authors of last week’s commentary also stated, erroneously, that spending the money earmarked for this project on efficiency improvements at our Henry M. Jackson hydro project near Sultan would yield more energy. Jackson was opened in 1984 — it’s still fairly new for a hydro project. Studies we’ve conducted have not found any cost-effective efficiency projects that would even come close to yielding the 13.7 average megawatts the Sunset project would deliver.

They also asked why the PUD is pursuing this project when previous proposals in the area were dropped. The answer is that this is a very different, lower-impact project. It is more limited in scale and in scope.

We’re proud that history shows we do these projects right. Our Youngs Creek hydro project, which opened in 2012, came in under budget and was named Hydro Project of the Year by Renewable Energy World magazine. A year earlier, the Low Impact Hydropower Institute recognized our Jackson hydro project as a Certified Low Impact Hydropower Project.

Still, any potential energy project we explore will face at least some opposition. Our response mustn’t be to give up on clean, local, renewable energy. Instead, it should be to study each potential project thoroughly and exhaustively so the wider community has all the facts before a decision is made to proceed.

At the Snohomish PUD, we believe we can find a balance that serves the community as well as the environment we all cherish. It’s what we’ll continue to seek in all of our projects.

Steve Klein is general manager of the Snohomish County PUD. Read more about the Sunset Fish Passage and Energy Project, and the PUD’s existing hydro projects, at www.snopud.com/hydro.

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