Let’s not be glib about dams – they help power Washington’s economy

Washington state’s dams, power-producing and not, have been much in the news lately.

  1. A WSU study suggests that dams are not as carbon-neutral as we might assume, because reservoirs produce methane – at least initially.
  2. A judge says the federal government must consider breaching dams on the lower Snake River as one of the options to help salmon.
  3. Candidates for Congress in Seattle admitted that they have a lot to learn about the issues surrounding dams, and how dams benefit Seattle and the region.

Carbon-neutral study: The WSU study examined reservoirs behind all dams, not just hydroelectricity-producing dams, and estimated that 1.5% of greenhouse gas production is from dams. That’s because methane is released from decomposing plant life that has been covered by water.

Todd Myers at the Washington Policy Center points out that the study raises more questions than it answers. Presumably older dams are contributing very little to greenhouse gas emissions – plant material at those sites decomposed years ago.

The study presents good information to have, but those looking to condemn hydroelectric dams will have to look elsewhere for fodder. Measured against other energy generators of base power, hydroelectric dams remain an incredibly clean source.

Lower Snake dams: The judge in this case says dam breaching must be one of the considered options to aid salmon recovery. Decisions in this case and their implementation will not happen quickly, but still must be done thoughtfully.

The lower Snake dams provide electricity for the equivalent of 800,000 homes. Grain shipping in that region is accomplished primarily by river barge, which would not be possible without the dams. The number of trucks that would be needed to replace the barges is astronomical – and not carbon-neutral.

Seattle’s reliance on dams: Asked about the future of dams in this state, the candidates running to replace Rep. Jim McDermott gave fumbling answers before both ended up laughing – a tacit admission that they have a lot to learn on this topic.

When competing for votes in Seattle, it’s tempting to give a “rip them out” answer on dams. Tracy Warner at the Wenatchee World, who knows plenty about dams, gave a reasoned response:

“Electricity doesn’t just show up. It is not produced by flights of fancy, moonbeams, cool articles in Wired or a Harry Potter character waving a wand. It required the intense effort of generations, the labor of tens of thousands of people, and investments in the multiple billions to produce enough electricity to supply Seattle and provide the energy without which its thriving economy wouldn’t be worth a 500K RAM chip from a 1984 IBM PC…

“[The Grand Coulee Dam] produces 7,000 megawatts of power, enough to light and heat all Seattle seven times over. It produces power so abundantly and inexpensively it constitutes incalculable injection of wealth into the regional economy. To reach the price the average American pays for electricity we in Washington would have to nearly double our rates. As an added bonus the dam supplies energy to lift water onto the Columbia Basin to produce $1.4 billion in food, every year.”

The Columbia dams literally power Washington’s economy. The cheap, abundant, clean electricity they produce is the reason Boeing cemented its presence here, and why we have other energy-intensive industries here that offer well-paid jobs, such as PACCAR, REC Silicon in Moses Lake, the server farms in Quincy, and many others.

All of which is to say, it’s not a topic on which we can afford to be glib. We don’t know what the future of energy will look like. We do know that our hydroelectric system produces abundant clean energy at very low prices, and that it’s one of our state’s top economic advantages.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.