As is common in this day of "say it and they may just believe it," statements supporting political positions need to be viewed with skepticism and fact-checked. So is the case for the letter submitted by the PUD No. 2 Commissioners published in the June 12 edition of the Chinook Observer.
The political position PUD No. 2 is subtly advocating is the move to require hydropower to be considered a renewable energy source in Washington State, which it currently is not. To support this position they make a number of statements that are misleading and some that are simply not true.
The commissioners state that “hydropower is a zero-emission resource.” This is not true. It’s well-documented that many of the large lakes (reservoirs) created by dams produce exceptionally large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas, and this is now believed to be a major contributor to global warming. (See BioScience, Volume 66, Issue 11, 1 November 2016, Pages 949–964).
Further, the editorial states that hydropower is “nimble, it ramps up and downs in minutes, or even seconds to keep the electric grid in balance.” While it may be true that electrical generation rates can be adjusted quickly at some dams, operators are very reluctant to do that. Starting and stopping hydropower turbines is wearing on the equipment and shortens their lifespans, but most importantly, a turbine that’s not spinning is not making any money for the dam operator, which they don’t like for obvious reasons. Because of historic energy generation contracts that favor hydropower producers, Washington’s growing wind-power farms are regularly required to spill wind and reduce energy production when the energy they generate is more than is needed to meet the demand.
The most significant false statement though is that hydropower is “renewable.” This implies that hydropower generation can be produced without impacting the environment. Hydropower is in fact not considered a renewable energy source in Washington because of the major environmental impacts it has, in particular the massive damage it causes to rivers. Dams across the state turn large extents of free-flowing rivers into warm lakes. These lakes not only produce methane, they support large populations of invasive, predatory fish that eat salmon and other native species. Further, the impacts of this are devastating to the entire river downstream of the dam. And finally, dams block the migration of salmon and steelhead. While many dams now have fish ladders to help adult salmon migrating upstream and downstream passage systems to help juveniles migrating to the sea, dams still kill large numbers of salmon as they attempt to pass them in both directions. There are also river systems like the Cowlitz River here in southwest Washington that have multiple dams that still don’t provide any fish passage and will never be able to due to the height of the dams. There are well over 100 miles of productive fish habitat above the Cowlitz River dams that are inaccessible to salmon other than the few fish that are trapped below the dams and hauled past them.
Whether we need dams in Washington to meet our energy needs is a legitimate and challenging question and one that is currently being debated. Stating that dams supply clean, renewable energy that can be used to meet Washington’s goal of using 100% clean energy by 2045 is misleading and does not accurately represent the facts of the issue. It will serve the people of Washington far better if factual information is provided as they consider this important question.