Plants at the four Lower Snake River dams, considered for possible breaching, use turbines like this to pump power into the Northwest grid.
Plants at the four Lower Snake River dams, considered for possible breaching, use turbines like this to pump power into the Northwest grid.

Miller: Breaching dams threatens basic necessity: electricity

So far, my family and I have been very blessed regarding the novel coronavirus. None of us has shown any symptoms. The same holds true for our friends. 

Our greatest concern at this point is what will happen to people in poor health, to the businesses that have had to close and to those who’ve lost their jobs? 

Guest Writer

Guest writer Kurt Miller is the executive director of Northwest RiverPartners, a not-for-profit coalition of community-owned utilities, ports and businesses in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. In addition to serving as a Bonneville Power Administration economist and Portland General Electric executive, he founded the first successful electricity brokerage in the U.S. Convinced hydroelectric dams and salmon runs can co-exist, he is committed to developing collaborative, science-driven solutions to energy and environmental challenges.

While isolated in our homes, it’s easy to forget all that as long as Netflix is working. Going to the grocery store is actually where I feel the most uneasy, but it’s not being exposed to germs, rather being exposed to some hard realities. 

First, I realize how reliant I am on the grocery store for my survival. When the store is fully stocked, it’s not particularly troubling. When the shelves are empty and people are on edge, the feeling is much different. 

The empty shelves also remind me of how reliant I am on farmers and truckers, whom I never see, to grow and deliver the food. It makes me think about other foundational elements we depend on for our well-being. 

I know I’m not alone. I spent 20 years of my career working for Portland General Electric, so I’ve had several people share with me how crucial a reliable electric grid is in this time of national emergency. Imagine our communities trying to make it through this crisis without electricity. 

I tell them the electric grid is in very good hands, and I don’t mean my own. I now represent more than 60 community-owned utilities across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, and I’m proud of the preparations they’ve made for emergencies like this.

However, I do have longer-term concerns beyond the likely duration of the current pandemic. 

Portland’s NBC affiliate aired an in-depth story titled “Power Struggle,” in which KGW reporter Pat Dooris looked into the future reliability of our electric supplies, due to the early closures of many of the Northwest’s coal plants. 

In an effort to fight the effects of climate change, approximately 6,000 megawatts of coal-fueled generating capacity will be lost in the next decade. To put that in perspective, 1,000 megawatts is enough to power a city the size of Seattle, and we don’t have many like that size in the Northwest. 

As a result, most of the region’s energy forecasting groups are saying we could develop an energy shortage, and perhaps even suffer regionwide blackouts, in the next five years. 

The risk continues to grow, as the federal government, under the orders of U.S. District Court Judge Michael Simon, is considering the possibility of breaching the four lower Snake River dams. He ordered the examination due to concerns over endangered salmon in the Snake River Basin. 

So, under the National Environmental Policy Act process, the agencies that control the dams are performing a full Environmental Impact Statement around the lower Snake River dams, along with the rest of the federally operated Columbia River system. 

The federal agencies’ Draft Environmental Impact Statement was released Feb. 28. The 8,000-page analysis indicates removing the four dams, which together average about 1,100 megawatts of electricity, would double the risk of regionwide blackouts. 

The analysis does show the dams could be replaced. But at what cost to society?

These dams produce carbon-free power that is storable. They back up reservoirs, allowing them to store water for a short period of time, then send it rushing through hydroelectric turbines when more power is needed. 

This ability is something you don’t see with intermittent sources, such as wind and solar. In essence, hydroelectric dams act as giant, clean batteries that help us safely add other renewables to the grid. Hydroelectricity fills in the minute-to-minute and hour-to-hour gaps caused by wind and sunshine.  

Because this is unique, there are only two ways to replace the dams. You can add new fossil-fuel-dependent gas-fired plants, or you can develop a vast network of wind and solar farms with an unprecedented array of utility-scale batteries to back them up. 

The impact statement indicates the first option would increase carbon pollution in the Northwest states by 3 million metric tons a year, or roughly 10%. It reveals the second would increase power costs by $1 billion annually.

For the millions of customers who get their electricity from utilities supplied by the Bonneville Power Administration, the latter would mean a 25% increase in their monthly electric bills. 

The statement also found irrigation lost from dam-breaching would result in a social welfare loss of $458 million. It reported that loss of barging capability could put more than 100,000 additional semis on the road each year. 

Not surprisingly, based on these results, the federal agencies found that while breaching the lower Snake River dams might be the best solution if we considered only the health of salmon runs, when we consider the environment and communities, it doesn’t promise a good outcome.

While these results seem convincing, the issue of salmon and dams remains highly emotional.

There is a public comment process scheduled to close April 13; many organizations across the country are working hard to influence that process. We wouldn’t deny them the right, but we would encourage people in our local communities to make their voices heard as well. 

Electricity is a basic need. It is a critical building block for society.

We often take these basic needs for granted, but our current situation is reminding us just how important these needs are. You can find various ways to get involved by visiting our website at


Don Dix

If one has fished the any of the rivers on the Oregon coast, it should be apparent dams have no influence in the declining salmon and steelhead runs there (no dams). But at the mouth of any Oregon coastal river (including the Columbia at Astoria), one can view hundreds of seals and sea lions resting on the sand awaiting another surge of fish (incoming tide).

It has been stated that these pinnipeds eat at least 2 (minimum estimate) fish per day. And the etimate of sea lions in the Columbia system (Astoria to Bonneville) is 2000-3000. Using those numbers, monthly consumption of salmon and steelhead could easily be 100K.

I agree dams are part of the issue, but eyewitnesses can attest that seal and sea lions do as much damage to fish runs as any factor -- just ask a fisherman!

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