Report: Climate Change Likely To Reduce Hydropower In The Northwest

A new climate report projects reductions in hydropower of up to 20 percent by 2080. | credit: Sam Beebe Ecotrust/Flickr
A new climate report projects reductions in hydropower of up to 20 percent by 2080. | credit: Sam Beebe Ecotrust/Flickr


By Cassandra Profita, OPB

A national report released Tuesday says climate change will make it increasingly difficult for the Northwest to generate hydropower and protect salmon at the same time.

The Northwest gets 75 percent of its electricity from dams. As climate change reduces summer stream flows, the Northwest Climate Assessment report says the result will likely be less hydropower production from those dams – with reductions of up to 20 percent by 2080.

The reductions would be necessary to preserve stream flows for threatened and endangered fish, according to Amy Snover, director of the Climate Impacts Group and co-lead author of the Northwest report. Snover says with climate change leaving less water in rivers during the summer, what’s left will have to be divided between storage for hydropower and flows for fish.

“It will be increasingly difficult to meet the two goals of producing summer and fall hydropower and maintaining sufficient flows in the river for protected and endangered fish,” she said. “You can reduce some of the negative impacts on hydropower production but you can’t do that and maintain the fish flows.”

Snover says her report’s projections are based on the way the Northwest operates hydroelectric dams right now. But that could change. Regional power managers say climate change is leading them to reconsider how they will operate dams in the future.

John Fazio, an analyst with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, says climate change is going to shift demand for electricity in the region, too.

Winters will be warmer, so people will need less power than before at a time of year when there’s lots of water in the rivers. And as summers get hotter, there will be more need for power to cool people off at a time of year when there’s less water available to generate hydropower.

Fazio has been thinking about the best way to manage the hydro system under these climate change scenarios. He’s suggested using other sources of power in the winter to make sure the system’s reservoirs are full of water by summertime.

“My suggestion would be during the summer we could pull more water from reservoirs to make up for decrease in summer flows and then going into the winter, use generation from other sources to meet our (power) loads and let the reservoirs refill,” he said.

Fazio’s ideas are outlined the council’s latest 20-year plan for meeting the region’s demand for power.

“It would call for a change in the whole approach to how we operate the hydro system,” Fazio said. “So far it hasn’t gotten any traction anywhere. It’s a complicated issue, but we’re trying to tackle it.”

Bonneville Power Administration, which manages 31 dams in the Columbia River Basin and distributes most of the electricity in the Northwest, has been pondering the issue of climate change as well. It’s developed a road map for adapting to climate change and launched pilot projects to model the effects of climate change on stream flows in the Columbia River Basin.

PUD Changes Course: No Dam for Skykomish River’s Sunset Falls

Skykomish RiverCourtesy Andrea Matzke
Skykomish River
Courtesy Andrea Matzke

By Bellamy Pailthorp

April 16, 2014


Plans to put a dam on one of Washington’s most scenic rivers have been called off.

The Snohomish County Public Utilities District says it has a better plan for the area on the Skykomish River near Index. But opponents of the project say it’s still too early to declare a victory.

Snohomish County PUD was planning an inflatable weir for the bend in the river near Sunset Falls, not far from Index. The utility said it had a design that would rise and fall with the river, making it safe for endangered fish runs and minimally disruptive to the scenic value of the area.

But environmental groups and local property owners disagreed, and came out in force to raise their objections with federal regulators.

Now, the PUD says it has a better plan.

“We no longer need a dam, weir or in-river structure,” said assistant general manager Kim Moore.

A Switch To ‘Better Designs’

Moore says extensive studies of the area led the utility to see they could forego the dam, but still put turbines and a tunnel in at the bend in the river near Sunset Falls. And he says it would still produce enough power for about 10,000 homes on average, but would save $10 million and a whole season of construction.

“We’ve just come up with better designs that accomplish reduced cost, reduced impacts, reduced construction. We know the area much better now than we did a year ago,” Moore said.

Opponents Concerned About Preserving The Scenic Waterway

Opponents of the project say it’s risky to divert any water from a river that is home to endangered salmon. And the river is one of just a handful designated as state scenic waterways in Washington.

‘There have been only four rivers that have made that cut, and the Skykomish is one of them,” said Andrea Matzke, a local property owner and president of a new group, Wild Washington Rivers.

Matzke says she’ll keep fighting any hydro project at Sunset Falls, whether a dam is involved or not, because it’s an inappropriate place to put an industrial project. Among the mounting concerns is the potential for mudslides in the area.

“This is an unstable area. Why would they be risking people, even their workers, by bringing in heavy equipment and blasting?” Matzke said.

Early Days Yet

The PUD says it’s still one of the best potential areas they have for developing new sources of alternative energy.

And it’s early days yet. The new plan must be submitted to federal regulators, and getting it licensed would likely take at least three years.

Columbia River Treaty Recommendation Near Finalization

Jack McNeelThe Pend Oreille River, near Kalispel tribal offices, supplied salmon and steelhead to Native people but that ended when Grand Coulee Dam was built.
Jack McNeel
The Pend Oreille River, near Kalispel tribal offices, supplied salmon and steelhead to Native people but that ended when Grand Coulee Dam was built.

Jack McNeel

ICTMN 12/10/13

Will fish passage be restored from the Columbia River to Canada? Will a 15-tribe coalition significantly influence an international treaty that will last a lifetime? Can Canada and the U.S. agree to financial impacts affecting each country? Will ecological concerns get equal consideration with electric power rates?

These questions are part of the Columbia River Treaty recommendation that is due to go to the U.S. State Department in mid-December. Congress won’t be making any decisions at this point, in fact 2014 is the first year either Canada or the U.S. can notify the other whether to eliminate the treaty, retain it as is, or to modify it. Even then there is a 10-year clock for both countries to analyze and prepare for international negotiation. Despite that time lag, the next few months should decide the U.S. position on these critical questions, many of which effect Native people on both sides of the border.

The original treaty, ratified in 1964, had two primary purposes of flood control and hydropower but tribes had virtually no say in the development of the treaty. Much has changed in the past 50 years. One significant change is the many years of experience tribes now have in international treaty work, especially regarding the Pacific Salmon Treaty. Fifteen of the northwestern tribes have now formed a coalition to work together in obtaining considerations of importance to them in a future long-term treaty.

Joel Moffitt, Nez Perce and Chairman of the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, spoke before the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on November 7, first pointing out the Columbia Basin Tribes are working with the U.S. Entity and other sovereigns and do not have their own alternative technical or draft proposals as might have been suggested by others.

Moffitt summarized what the Columbia Basin Tribes see as critical elements: Integrate ecosystem-based function as a third purpose equal to hydropower and flood risk management; Enhance spring and summer flows while stabilizing reservoir operations; Pursue restoration of fish passage to historic locations; Pursue with Canada post-2024 operations to meet flood risk management objectives, and finally, and important to power interests, balance the annual payment to Canada known as Canadian Entitlement.

He explained the impacts to “Columbia Basin Tribes, First Nations and other communities all the way up to the headwaters,” began with the construction of dams even before the present treaty. “The tribes have also been excluded from its governance and implementation. The Treaty does not include considerations of critical tribal cultural resources.” He went on to add, “The tribes believe that a modernized Treaty needs to address the Columbia Basin using a watershed approach that integrates ecosystem-based function, hydropower, and flood risk management on both sides of the border.”

Moffitt explained that this approach, among other things, should increase recognition and preservation of tribal first foods, increase salmon survival, increase resident fish and wildlife survival, and allow fish passage to historical habitats now blocked.

Matt Wynne, tribal secretary for the Spokane Tribe and a member of the 15-tribe coalition, commented, “The part that the Spokane Tribe is really interested in seeing to fruition is at least a study on anadromous fish passage above Grand Coulee Dam.”

Wynne added that he was happy with the overall draft recommendation. “It looks a lot more for Indian country than it ever has before. This was a really good move in a positive direction with the 15 basin tribes coming together and working together to have the ecosystem-based function as an element of the treaty. I’m really proud of how the 15 tribes have worked together.”

The public was introduced to the draft recommendation earlier this year and were encouraged to comment. Time has now expired for public comment but those comments were considered by the Sovereign Review Team in developing the regional draft which is going to the State Department.

The major conflict within the region is between the “power group” with the single focus of trying to reduce power rates for Pacific Northwest rate payers and the tribes and conservation groups who advocate an equitable role for eco-based functions which include fish passage to Canada. While the recommendation is near completion there is still a power struggle to better reflect the work of the region as opposed to the single focus of the power group.

Washington State’s Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell sits in a very pivotal seat at a pivotal moment. She chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and is no doubt being lobbied hard by both groups. With 15 U.S. tribes involved and similar numbers of First Nations bands in British Columbia, Indian country has much at stake.

America warming up to new hydropower

performance.govA 46-megawatt hydroelectric facility is being built at Red Rock Lake in Iowa.
performance.govA 46-megawatt hydroelectric facility is being built at Red Rock Lake in Iowa.

John Upton, Grist

Flooding an area with a new reservoir to produce hydropower would seldom, if ever, be a popular idea with environmentalists. But what about the thousands of existing reservoirs that serve other purposes in America — the ones that control floods, entertain boaters, and store drinking water?

Funneling water from those reservoirs over newly installed turbines could be a relatively benign way of boosting zero-carbon hydroelectric power supplies.

That’s the logic that the Obama Administration has adopted as it’s worked with agencies and private utilities to tap underutilized hydropower generation potential, part of its “all of the above” approach to energy policy.

And it seems to be working.

The AP reports that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issued 25 hydropower operating permits last year — the most since 2005. And it issued 125 preliminary permits last year, up from 95 the year before. There are 60,000 megawatts worth of preliminary permits and projects awaiting approval nationwide.

“I’ve never seen those kinds of numbers before,” said Linda Church Ciocci, executive director of the National Hydropower Association. “We’re seeing a significant change in attitude.” From the AP article:

The Department of Energy concluded last year that the U.S. could boost its hydropower capability by 15 percent by fitting nearly 600 existing dams with generators.

Most of the potential is concentrated in 100 dams largely owned by the federal government and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. Many are navigation locks on the Ohio, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas rivers or their major tributaries.

The state with the most hydropower potential is Illinois, followed by Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania. Rounding out the top 10 are Texas, Missouri, Indiana, and Iowa, the study concluded.

The AP reports that it costs more to build a hydropower plant than a natural gas-fired facility, but unlike natural gas, the kinetic energy in the flowing water that fuels a hydropower plant is basically free.