Low-Priced Energy Doesn't Need to Cost the World Salmon
Sara Patton, Director NW Energy Coalition
In his July 5th piece (Washington's canary is starting to look a tad ill), Don C. Brunell of the Association of Washington Business rightly expresses concern over rising electricity prices in the Northwest. Low-cost power is a cornerstone of our vibrant economy and safeguarding our low rates should be a priority for Northwest policy-makers at every level. But in linking recent spikes in electricity price to efforts to save endangered Snake River salmon, Brunell is fear mongering and deflecting attention away from the real causes of rising power costs, which begin with change and uncertainty in the electricity industry.
Shortly after Congress deregulated the industry at the wholesale level in 1992, the Bonneville Power Administration and most Northwest utilities began slashing their world-class investments in energy conservation, which captured approximately 200 average megawatts of savings in 1994, a peak year. About 1,000 average megawatts of electricity is required to power Seattle.
Uncertainty and new competitive pressures also kept plans for new power plants on the drawing board even as the West Coast-wide power surplus began to dwindle and prices began to rise in the late-90s. Ironically, many of the industries bitten recently by rising power costs are the very players that pushed hardest to abolish regulated pricing.
Northwest aluminum smelters were so confident the new power market would yield low prices, in 1995 they sharply reduced the amount of electricity they had historically received from BPA, choosing to rely on the market instead. Now, with prices marching upwards, the industry is mobilizing its army of lawyers, lobbyists and PR professionals to grab more power from BPA, once-again the lowest-cost provider in the region.
Aluminum smelters provide relatively few jobs and ship their product raw out of the region. The limited economic value they bring to the Northwest, in light of the enormous quantity of electricity they consume, raises the question of whether they should receive any federal power at all. Aluminum factories and other large power users, by virtue of the sheer volume of electricity they consume, wield enough market clout to negotiate good deals from private power suppliers.
We may not be able to turn the clock back on deregulation, but we can take steps to alleviate the electricity shortages and high prices predicted to occur in the Northwest at times of peak power demand.
A recently completed assessment of the energy savings potential in Seattle, for example, found as much as 260 average megawatts of conservation can be delivered in the city over a twenty-year period for about the same price as BPA power. Northwest aluminum smelters, which collectively consume some 3,000 average megawatts, rely on outdated, inefficient technologies. They could easily cut their consumption by 10 percent, or 300 average megawatts and become more competitive in doing so.
Countless other ways exist to get more out of the Northwest energy system. Puget Sound Energy is already experimenting with ``remote metering'' which allows utilities to briefly interrupt power going to hot water heaters and other energy intensive appliances during the workday in unoccupied homes. Fuel cells and other small-scale generation technologies can be installed in factories and buildings to be switched on when they are needed to reduce pressure on the grid.
These and other innovative solutions can be used to head off impending power shortages and their accompanying price spikes, reduce the need to build new, polluting power plants, and help save endangered salmon.
Independent scientists, backed by state and federal wildlife biologists have identified bypass of four dams as the best way to rebuild imperiled Snake River salmon runs. If the dams go, the power they produce goes with them. But we have the technology and know-how to replace the 1,100 average megawatts they produce. And if a decision to take out the dams were made today, they wouldn't come out tomorrow -- we would have years to plan for power replacement.
The Northwest is attractive as a place to live and work for many reasons. Our spectacular natural heritage, of which salmon are a vital part, ranks at least as high as our low power rates. Fortunately, we don't have to trade one for the other.
By tapping into the Northwest's vast reservoir of cost-effective energy savings and taking advantage of cutting edge new technologies and energy management techniques, we can have clean, affordable energy and healthy runs of wild salmon.
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