OPALCO: visionary IRP but dam removal opposition should wait for scientific study completion

OPALCO: visionary IRP but dam removal opposition should wait for scientific study completion

Submitted by Chris and Chom Greacen.

Orcas Power and Light Cooperative is to be commended for adopting a 20-year Integrated Resource Plan, approved on Thursday, Sept. 19, that takes the climate crisis seriously. But at the same meeting the board of directors also unwisely approved a resolution opposing removing or breaching Snake River Dams before the results of key studies are complete.

OPALCO’s IRP recognizes that we’re at two tipping points — one related to climate change and another driven by renewable energy dropping below production costs. Things are going to get interesting and fortune favors the prepared. We’ll see increasingly hot summers and warmer winters with decreased heating load and more summer air conditioning. Our region has long relied on winter snowpack to store vast quantities of water, releasing it slowly over the spring and summer. In our future is less mountain snow and more winter rain, on average, which will overwhelm hydropower reservoirs’ ability to store water (and thus energy).

OPALCO’s wholesale power contract with Bonneville Power Administration expires in 2028. This means our preferential deal to get cheap hydropower from federal projects will be in direct competition with California’s power demand. Coal power plants, which now account for over 13 percent of Washington’s electricity consumption, will be eliminated from the portfolio by the end of 2025 to reduce carbon emissions as required by the Washington Clean Energy Transformation Act. This is overdue as coal is the worst greenhouse gas polluter. New renewables will take up the slack, growing from current levels of just over 3 percent of electricity generation.

In anticipation of these tectonic shifts, OPALCO’s IRP calls for more local generation and demand-side management. On the generation side, we’ll see more local solar with battery storage and (as technology evolves) tidal electricity. And on the demand side, expansion of OPALCO’s cost-effective actions to incentivize energy-efficient heating, cooling and appliances, as well as rates that encourage usage when electricity is relatively abundant.

Great start. But then OPALCO’s board unanimously passed a resolution opposing decommissioning four Snake River Dams without waiting to see the results of a court-mandated study by federal agencies that analyzes removal, bypass or breaching these dams, or the results of a complementary study by the governor’s Southern Resident Killer Whale Task Force that is underway. OPALCO’s resolution was driven, it appears, by a combination of peer pressure from other co-ops around the state, by concerns that shuttering coal will lower power reserves, and a belief (opposed by many fisheries scientists) that removing the dams won’t help the salmon. It’s well-established that orcas are dying from starvation, and that dams kill both adult salmon going upstream and juveniles going downstream. According to BPA, only 5-7 percent of the region’s energy is generated by the four lower Snake River dams. BPA’s territory includes Idaho, Oregon, Washington, western Montana and small parts of eastern Montana, California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming.

OPALCO has taken bold and appropriate steps with its IRP, but we need to wait and listen to the best available science before jumping to industry-supported conclusions opposing dam removal. OPALCO members expect the board to do the right thing even if it means bucking peer pressure from within the industry.