Power is what powers the Mid-Columbia economy

Construction proceeds on a $200 million expansion of Lamb Weston Co.’s french fry plant in north Richland on Aug. 4. The region’s agricultural economy rests on low-cost power and drives development of food processing and logistics firms throughout the region.
Construction proceeds on a $200 million expansion of Lamb Weston Co.’s french fry plant in north Richland on Aug. 4. The region’s agricultural economy rests on low-cost power and drives development of food processing and logistics firms throughout the region. Tri-City Herald

Smart technology offers power system managers the potential to tame demand during peak loads, with ramifications that could affect the region’s dams and power infrastructure.

But one won’t change: Low-cost power powers the Mid-Columbia economy.

“Low-cost power in the Pacific Northwest is so important to keeping our economy competitive,” said Randy Hayden, executive director of the Port of Pasco, which serves food processors and an array of other industry.

It’s a cliche that the Northwest is blessed with an abundance of low-cost power. But it’s also true.

The combined output of the dams and other facilities under the umbrella of the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal power marketing agency, averages nearly 29,900 megawatts, providing about 28 percent of the power used in the Northwest.

The BPA power portfolio includes coal, natural gas, and of course nuclear energy from Richland’s Energy Northwest. But hydroelectric dams account for more than 11,000 megawatts or 41 percent of the total.

The four lower Snake River Dams — Lower Monument, Lower Granite, Little Goose and Ice Harbor — have a combined capacity of about 4,500 megawatts.

The result is some of the nation’s cheapest power.

Residential power rates in Washington are 26 percent lower than the national average, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration statistics from May. Commercial electric rates are 21 percent below average and industrial rates are even lower, nearly 33 percent below average.

It is hard to overstate just how important low-cost power is to the region’s economy, said Carl Adrian, president and CEO of Tri-City Development Council, the region’s leading economic development and business recruitment agency.

Low-cost power turned Mid-Columbia desert into one of the world’s most productive farming regions, or so the state Department of Agriculture likes to brag.

Agriculture was a $10.7 billion industry in 2015. Apples, milk, cattle, potatoes, wheat, hay, cherries and asparagus and much more grow in abundance. That takes power.

“Agriculture has been successful in the Pacific Northwest because of low-cost power,” Adrian said.

Like the grid that connects dams and generators to transmission lines and customers, the economy is an interconnected system of producers who take raw crops and turn them into the products that show up in grocery stores, markets and restaurants.

Farms follow water and power. Food processors follow the farms. Logistics companies follow the processors.

“You think about a farm processor and all its electric motors. Well a farm in Eastern Washington has a lot of electric motors too,” Adrian said.

If the center pivot irrigation systems that dot the region aren’t convincing, consider Preferred Freezer at Horn Rapids Industrial Park.

The 455,000-square-foot (and growing) warehouse dominates the landscape. Hundreds of semi-trucks come and go every day, serving as a go-between for frozen fruits, vegetables and meats and distribution networks. Its major customer is Boise-based Lamb Weston.

The french fry giant is the largest customer for Washington’s potato industry, a crop worth $772 million in 2015, according to the National Agricultural Statistical Service.

“Agriculture can be more productive here because of the water and it costs money to pump the water,” Adrian explained. “They’re why the processors are here and the freezer is here, because the french fries are here. They build on each other.”

Scott Keller, executive director of the Port of Benton, said low-cost power is a key selling point. Reliability is another major factor.

Preferred and its neighbors are served by Richland’s municipal power system. Richland Energy Services purchases power from BPA, so it’s not surprising hydropower represents almost 89 percent of the power the city uses and nuclear about 10 percent.

The city utility built redundancy into the system to assure businesses an uninterrupted supply of juice.

To Keller, that’s worth its weight in gold, whether the commercial user is a massive freezer or a scrap metal firm.

“Power is the key to keeping things moving. It’s definitely a recruiting tool for any economic development,” he said.

For Hayden, of the Port of Pasco, low-cost electricity offers Washington business an edge in the competitive global agriculture market. The Mid-Columbia competes with markets across the globe and the difference can be a matter of pennies on the dollar.

“What people may not understand is this is a worldwide competition.”

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

Federal Dams at a Glance

Lower Snake River

Ice Harbor 693MW

Little Goose 930MW

Lower Granite 930MW

Lower Monumental 930MW

Lower Columbia River

McNary 1,120 MW

John Day 2,480MW

The Dalles 2,086MW

Bonneville 1,225 MW