Recently, some have asserted that purchasing power from the Bonneville Power Administration is an “outmoded” model that should be jettisoned in favor of other sources. In fact, BPA and its utility customers are evolving with the dynamic electricity industry, and it is the local utilities like Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative that are best able to determine the precise mix of power for future needs. With respect to the federal hydropower system, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of this flexible and renewable source of electricity have been greatly exaggerated.

BPA offers some of the cleanest and lowest-priced power in the country. But, in order to retain this enviable position, it will need to continue to address the challenge of increasing costs and reduced revenue. This is not an issue unique to BPA or even to the Northwest. Low natural gas prices, and an influx of other generation, have reduced market prices for selling surplus power. At the same time, an onslaught of regulatory costs, including fish and wildlife mitigation, physical security, cyber security and the need to maintain aging infrastructure have taken their toll.

Just as during a similar threat from a dip in market prices in the 1990s, BPA and agencies that own the generation assets are implementing a strategy to strengthen financial health through cost and debt management. Part of this plan is to modernize to meet industry change and better provide competitive power and transmission services.

Some assertions about a failing federal power system appear to be motivated by long-held advocacy positions against dams. These arguments are misguided in their presumption that the needs of fish (impacted by many factors) should mean dismantling dams through which the fish already see 96 to 98 percent survival rates. There has even been fear mongering about sediment buildup, ignoring that the Army Corps of Engineers very effectively provides any needed dredging in the river.

These claims also tend to ignore the enormous value and unique aspects of power from BPA that is safe, reliable, flexible and 95 percent emission free. Including the market purchases that could contain coal or gas generation, BPA’s power still enjoys a level of 27 pounds of carbon for each megawatt hour of electricity, compared to the national rate of 998 pounds. Studies showed that to replace just one-eighth of BPA’s power with highly efficient gas generation would increase CO2 emissions by over two million metric tons each year, the equivalent of adding more than 400,000 cars to the roads.

In addition, hydropower’s flexible capacity enables more use of generation from wind and solar. With large, cost-effective battery storage not yet available, intermittent renewable sources have the added operational need and cost of being integrated into the grid using other generation such as hydropower that can ramp up to meet immediate demand.

The regional power planning entity, the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, stated, “the federal hydropower system has been, and continues to be, the foundation of the Northwest’s economy.” As BPA and its utility customers evolve to meet future needs, this valuable federal power system is a far cry from being outmoded.

Scott Corwin is the executive director of the Public Power Council, a nonprofit association that represents consumer-owned electric utilities in the Pacific Northwest with respect to power and transmission from the federal Columbia River Power System. Corwin has more than 20 years of experience in Northwest energy policy.


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