Saturday, March 07, 2009

Balance the Load: Look Beyond Hydropower

Special to the Cascadia Weekly
Balance the Load

IN 2006, Washington voters passed Initiative 937, which required utilities to obtain 15 percent of their power from renewable sources. Hydropower was not included in this goal. The reason for this was simple: Washington already receives more than 60 percent of its electricity from hydropower, representing more than a quarter of the nation’s total hydroelectric production.

Recognizing the need to diversify our state’s energy portfolio, voters sought incentives for development of alternatives to carbon-based sources that would not result in further impacts to our already stressed river systems. This week, however, lawmakers in Olympia are working to amend I-937 to include new hydropower and new dams resulting in further impacts to our already stressed river systems. The majority of amendments seek incentives for “small hydropower.” Sites for large dams have already been developed, but more than 500 sites for small hydropower have been identified the state, including several in the Nooksack watershed.

While developers attempt to portray an image of a quaint little waterwheel cranking out the megawatts along a forested mountain stream, a closer look reveals the problems with these projects.

Small projects produce very little power relative to the impacts. Incentives for new projects under 5 megawatts (MW) are among the proposals currently in the legislature. If one considers all 323 potential sites that have been identified in the state that meet this standard and if we developed all of them, we could produce a total of approximately 680 MW. This is comparable to one or two wind projects. The impacts would include not only those to the stream but also significant infrastructure that would be required for transmission lines to integrate each one of these little projects, scattered across the headwaters of the Cascades, with the regional energy grid.

Some have suggested that because these projects would not have “dams” or “reservoirs” but would instead utilize “weirs” and “headponds,” the impacts would be minimal. Despite the clever use of language, the reality is all conventional hydropower requires removing water from the stream to send it down a pipe and into a turbine.

Just a few years ago, we asked our timber companies to invest millions in forgone harvest to protect native trout populations and the integrity of our watersheds. Removing the water from these streams for hydropower would have obvious and immediate impacts on the resources we are
working to protect.

In addition to the fishery impacts, many of these headwater streams are enjoyed by whitewater kayakers. It is access to outdoor recreation opportunities that makes Bellingham one of the nation’s great cities for outdoor recreation and is a defining feature of the quality of life. Despite claims these projects would be upstream of “conventional navigation,” all of the best whitewater destinations in the region are at risk.

Some have also argued that more hydropower is necessary to balance the load from wind power. While our existing hydropower infrastructure is useful in this regard, building new small projects would not help. For the flashy headwater streams representing candidates for new projects, power production is greatest in the spring when flows are highest. This is also when regional power rates are at their lowest due to the overabundance of hydropower on the grid. In fact, this past spring power prices were negative and producers had to pay to place power on the grid.

Hydropower is an important part of our state’s energy resources and will continue to be so, but it’s time to diversify to new renewable technology and challenge our elected officials to look beyond the old technology of the past. Let’s not threaten our investment in watershed protection through careless incentives for new dams and hydropower.


Thomas O’Keefe, PhD, is a river ecologist and the Pacific Northwest Stewardship Director for American Whitewater, a national river conservation organization dedicated to conservation of our nation’s headwater streams and enhancement of opportunities for the public to enjoy them. He serves on the steering committee for the Hydropower Reform Coalition, and on weekends he can be found exploring many of the wild rivers in the Cascades that have been identified as sites for new hydropower projects.