Many people in the Tri-Cities don’t want to lose the four lower Snake River dams. But, it would be imprudent to not plan for the possibility.
The chance the dams could go away increased last April when the NW Energy Coalition published a study showing that power and energy system services provided by the dams can be affordably and reliably replaced by a portfolio of new renewable resources and energy efficiency.
Although advocates on both sides of the debate take issue with different details in the study, most accept the conclusion that concerns about electric system reliability without the dams are no longer relevant. In fact, the study showed the Northwest energy system would be more reliable and flexible if we replace the dams with renewables and conservation.
That means the dams’ fate will be decided by other considerations. Plummeting prices for wind and solar power, the rise of energy storage technologies, and flat demand for electricity are already changing the equation. Meanwhile, the threat to orca whales is concentrating attention on how the dams affect salmon.
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You don’t have to be an environmentalist to recognize that these trends could reach a tipping point. The question for Columbia and Snake River basin communities is, what then?
The region would have needs if the dams were removed — transportation for crops, irrigation for farms, and maintenance of wine tourism to name a few.
At the same time, dam removal would create opportunities. Fish restoration would aid tourism. The build-out of new renewable resources could create new jobs and commerce. And, because the development may take place in the private sector, communities could see increases to their tax bases.
But, none of it is automatic. Competition for the development of new resources may come from other regions. And the Tri-Cities shouldn’t assume that its agricultural and other needs would be adequately addressed without deliberate planning. Nationwide there are cautionary tales of places that failed to plan for the loss of old, inefficient energy resources and found themselves without a transition plan when those resources retired.
In short, while people in the Tri-Cities may continue defending the Lower Snake River dams, they should also plan and develop policy proposals to ensure that, if the dams go away, the region’s needs will be met and it will be able to compete successfully for new opportunities.
It’s hard for a community to talk about and plan for an outcome it may oppose. Yet, the more proactive the region is in its planning, the more likely it is that its needs will be met and opportunities will be seized.
In addition to advocating for new renewable energy and energy efficiency, the NW Energy Coalition has experience working with communities affected by transitions away from old energy resources. Now is the time for the region to identify its needs and start developing a transition plan.
Nancy Hirsh is the executive director of the NW Energy Coalition in Seattle.