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Energy crisis affects Snake River dam proposal
The problem is not expected to be out in a flash.
According to the Northwest Power Planning Council, power shortages are likely to hit the Northwest and California for the next few years.
With an energy crisis looming over the West, removing part of the region's energy supply through dam breaching might seem unreasonable.
Nevertheless, conservation groups maintain that the energy crisis does not dim their current proposal to remove the four Lower Snake River dams in order to recover endangered salmon populations.
California relies on hydroelectricity for 22 percent of its power, about a third of which comes from the Pacific Northwest.
The power shortages could stall current efforts to protect endangered salmon populations.
On at least two occasions last summer, the Bonneville Power Administration - the federal agency responsible for marketing power from dams in the Pacific Northwest - used water meant to aid migrating juvenile salmon to supply California with hydroelctricity.
As an alternative to dam removal, the BPA is required by the current federal biological opinion on salmon recovery, to provide minimum flow and spill levels to help salmon survive the dams. In power "emergencies," however, those fish passage measures can be suspended to allow for additional hydropower generation.
Conservation groups have long claimed that alternative isn't working, and point instead to dam removal as the ultimate solution to restoring the region's salmon and steelhead.
"This energy crisis will not spiral out of control or be brought under control by what happens to the Snake River dams," said Scott Bosse of Idaho Rivers United.
On average, the four Lower Snake River dams annually produce about 1,231 megawatts of power, according to the Bonneville Power Administration. That amounts to enough electricity to power the city of Seattle or about 5 percent of the region's energy supply. Less than one percent of Califonia's energy supply comes from the lower Snake River dams, conservation groups note.
During the winter and summer months, when energy demands are at their peak, there is less water moving through the dams and less energy produced.
"The only time the dams are efficient at producing energy is during the spring runoff months," Bosse said. "We can't simply flip a switch and release water that isn't there."
A low snow-pack season and poor power planning are the real culprits for the energy crisis, conservation groups claim.
"In 1980 the Northwest Power Planning Council set its mission to protect and restore salmon and steelhead and to ensure that the Northwest had a reliable, affordable energy supply," Bosse said. "Twenty years later, we have extinctions and blackouts."
The energy produced by the four Lower Snake River dams could be replaced by conservation measures and alternative energy sources such as wind solar and geothermal power, conservation groups say.
"When we had abundant cheap power there is less incentive to develop alternative sources of power," Bosse said. "Now that we face scarce electricity supplies and much higher prices, that is changing."
As the price of cheap power goes up, green energy sources become economically and ecologically attractive, he adds.
Several groups are responding to the energy crisis by making sure these alternatives become available.
"This is the worst energy deficit we have seen since 1978," said Sara Patton, director of the Northwest Energy Coalition. "There's going to be a lot of public policy effort to get new energy sources going. Our mission is to make sure that this frenzy to get new energy sources on board is met with as much energy conservation and clean renewable energy as possible."
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