Power systems require balance at all times. Supply must always equal demand—no more, no less—or the system will crash and the lights will go out.
In the Northwest, hydroelectricity is the key not only to ensuring the region has enough power for a stable, reliable system, but to integrating all other sources of power generation.
By adjusting the amount of water flowing through the dams, hydropower can be increased or decreased quickly to meet changes in demand. It can be ramped up when the wind is not blowing, and dialed down at times of high winds.
“Northwest hydro is such a great resource because it is carbon free and it can be relied upon 24/7,” says Public Power Council Executive Director Scott Simms. “The value only increases as resource adequacy becomes more of an issue here.”
Adequacy means ensuring there is enough of the right kind of generating resources available at the right time to keep electricity flowing to consumers all of the time.
“With retirement of coal and gas facilities, we are backing ourselves into a corner,” says Northwest RiverPartners Executive Director Kurt Miller. “We’ve campaigned to keep the lower Snake River dams in place. Even with them, we face resource adequacy issues.”
Energy efficiency gains have kept load growth relatively flat in recent years, but the region is expected to need another 400 megawatts of always-on generating capacity by 2035, according to the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.
“Regardless of how one feels about coal and gas power plants, you can’t ignore they are there when needed,” Simms says. “They are tremendously reliable. Just like hydro, you can call on them and they are dispatched to start producing power.”
That’s not true of wind.
“Wind is variable and hard to plan for,” Miller says. “We can have a period where there is no output at all from wind. Solar also is variable. It’s great to add to the mix, but it requires the same partnership with hydro to keep the grid in balance.
“In a carbon-constrained environment, building a coal plant is not an option, and it is not easy to build a gas plant. It makes our existing carbon-free resources even more valuable. Hydro is the cornerstone of our clean energy future. It is the glue that holds it all together.”
Simms and Miller say it would be helpful to distinguish between perceptions and actual operating characteristics of different power resources.
“Energy portfolios are like having a mix of vegetables in your backyard garden,” Simms says. “It’s good to have a variety if you can, because some do better than others under various conditions. Hydro is like wind and solar in that it is renewable and non-fossil fuel emitting, but it has the added advantage of being predictable and able to respond when needs arise.
“It would be great to get to a place where we can talk openly about the merits and drawbacks of all kinds of power plants so we can have fully informed policy and cost decisions.”
Miller echoes the importance of having an educated public.
“People think of generating resource decisions as impacting the planet, but they also greatly affect affordability, reliability and accessibility,” he adds.
If energy policies accurately reflected hydro’s true value, the region’s public power customers would benefit, Simms says.
“As more renewable-friendly policies emerge in the West, we have the opportunity to not only educate people about hydro having similar renewable characteristics as wind and solar, but also high availability or capacity,” Simms says.
That could lead to better rates for Northwest customers of the Bonneville Power Administration, Simms says, adding, “Imagine a world in which the intrinsic value of hydro commanded a price premium over other sources in surplus sales transactions.”
While some consider battery technology to be a good alternative to dams, Miller notes that batteries face challenges.
“The process for mining the rare earth minerals needed for batteries is carbon-intensive,” he says. “They are not renewable. They don’t have a second life. They have not been fully tested on a utility scale.”
According to a recent federal report, it would cost $1 billion a year to replace the lower Snake River dams with solar, wind and batteries—leading to a 50% increase in rates to BPA customers, Miller says.
“That cost would be devastating to communities around the Northwest,” he says. “It is not a good option to replacing dams.
“At the end of the day, we are in a carbon-constrained world where people don’t want fossil fuel resources to back up renewables. None of the alternatives are even close to as good as hydroelectricity.