The Pacific Northwest’s hydroelectric power is clean and renewable. It’s also plentiful — at least right now.
But as times change and the infrastructure of the dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers age — along with the power-generating equipment inside them — the energy produced may decline as the cost to provide it rises.
This reality is now being contemplated by officials of the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency established in 1937 to deliver and sell the electricity from the dams. The result of BPA has been cheap, plentiful power that fueled the region’s economy.
BPA is now facing challenges, from the cost of upgrading its infrastructure to changes in energy markets. As BPA has raised power rates, the utilities it serves are now considering going elsewhere to buy power.
If that occurs, that will not only threaten BPA’s future but make it more difficult to continue efforts to save the Northwest’s salmon population. BPA has invested $17 billion into salmon restoration over the past 40 years.
Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton recently detailed the BPA’s challenges. The numbers are eye popping.
Public and private utilities pay Bonneville to send electricity through thousands of miles of federal transmission lines, which require extensive maintenance and may also need to be expanded in the years ahead, Bernton wrote.
BPA’s annual revenue, which totaled $3.7 billion in 2018, also comes from selling power in California and other states. But, Bernton noted, sales from outside the Northwest is shrinking — “dropping from $521.8 million in 2011 to $282 million in 2018 as new wind, solar and natural plants pushed down prices in western markets,” he wrote.
Over the past nine years, BPA has increased its rates 30 percent to Northwest utilities in order to meet its financial obligations. Currently BPA is in the midst of a huge project at Grand Coulee Dam to overhaul the largest hydroelectric units in North America. It’s as challenging as it is expensive.
Bernton reports that some regional public-utility executives are considering lower-priced producers as they prepare for negotiations with Bonneville over new contracts that would take effect after 2028.
“I take this very seriously. It’s not about panicking, but it’s about demonstrating that sense of urgency … and ultimately it’s about delivering results,’ said Elliot Mainzer, Bonneville’s top administrator.
The people of the Pacific Northwest should take this seriously too.
The continued success to BPA is essential to consistent clean, renewable power. Since BPA is ultimately controlled by the government, the rates it charges are carefully monitored and, over time, are generally consumer-friendly.
In addition, BPA’s transmission system is critical to the delivery of power in the region. It not only makes economic sense, but having it under control of a government agency is essential for national security.