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Changing Currents: Picturing a Northwest Without Cheap, Public Hydropower

Felicity Barringer
Jan 29 2018

The power gained by harnessing the Columbia River paved the way for industrial development and widespread farmland irrigation. But what if, instead of public utilities, that power had been sold by private firms seeking profits?

The Dam that Started it All: Erected between 1934 and 37 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Dam was the largest of its time, and the first in a series of impoundments of the Columbia River that electrified and irrigated the Pacific Northwest.

The Dam that Started it All Erected between 1934 and 37 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Dam was the largest of its time, and the first in a series of federal impoundments of the Columbia River that electrified and irrigated the Pacific Northwest. Bonneville Power Administration via Flickr
 

By Felicity Barringer

After the creation of states of the Pacific Northwest following a series of treaties with Native tribes in the mid-19th century, the area’s most dramatic transformation came with the arrival, in the late 1930's, of large-scale, low-cost hydropower developed by the government from the muscular Columbia River system.

The power gained by harnessing the Columbia River paved the way for industrial development and widespread farmland irrigation. But what if private firms seeking profits had developed the power? This blog again looks at how the West might be different if a major event had — or had not — occurred.

‘Electricity and Power Made So Cheap That They Will Become A Standard Article Of Use’

By the time of the Great Depression, “There had been a debate going on for decades between public and private power,” said John Findlay, an historian at the University of Washington. In the early 20th century, success in the turbulent power markets had brought enormous wealth to men like Chicago’s Samuel Insull, whose face inspired the cartoon plutocrat of the Monopoly board game.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1937
President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1937.   National Archives

The collapse of Insull’s empire of electric holding companies “contributed a great deal to the fall of the stock market” in 1929, said Libby Burke, an historian at the Bonneville Power Administration. Other scholars disagree about the utility bubble’s role, but public dislike of private electric companies was pervasive as the Great Depression took hold. In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt, speaking at the site of the Grand Coulee dam on the upper Columbia River, said, “We are going to see electricity and power made so cheap that they will become a standard article of use…”

Roosevelt’s Bonneville Project Act of 1937 called for a federally-constructed hydropower grid and federally-controlled distribution of the power. In the decade thereafter, the populations of Washington and Oregon grew by more than 37 percent, almost double the rate of the U.S. population. The hydropower and World War II sparked an economic revolution.

What if a call for private power had prevailed? Counterfactual arguments are endlessly debatable. This one explores a question that keeps coming back. In 1984, the Grace Commission, appointed by President Reagan, recommended privatizing all federal systems for generating and transmitting power. Last spring, President Trump’s first budget proposed privatizing Bonneville’s transmission assets.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s policy of cheap power was sold with the strumming guitar of Woody Guthrie, the federal pitchman.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s policy of cheap power was sold with the strumming guitar of Woody Guthrie, the federal pitchman, who lionized dams “for the farmer and the factory and all of you and me.” “Once Franklin Roosevelt comes to power,” said Professor Findlay “they want to introduce the idea of a planned economy, a coordinated economy. Public power got a huge boost from that.” Carol Opatrny, a longtime consultant to lawyers and companies dealing with the Bonneville Power Administration, said simply, “Higher prices would have slowed things down.”

The biggest evidence for their argument: the arrival of the power-hungry aluminum industry in the late 1930s. Production of aluminum ingots requires large, steady and continuous amounts of electricity. It requires roughly 10 times the power needed to make steel, glass, or paper.

Graphic: BPA Wholesale power rate– Over Decades, an Increasing Bargain
Decades without a wholesale rate increase made BPA power an ever-greater bargain, until investments in new power plants drove prices up. Source: Northwest Power and Conservation Council
 

In the East, the first big company, Alcoa, usually located factories near hydropower sites, sometimes generating its own hydropower. It didn't come to the Northwest by accident. The Bonneville Power Administration was charged with managing and marketing the hydropower from the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. With local towns, businesses and politicians, BPA aggressively courted the industry. Their big draw: cheap power. In 1940, private companies serving towns with aluminum smelters, like New Kensington, Pa., charged industries up at least double the Bonneville rates per kilowatt-hour, based on the Federal Power Commission’s archival data.

BPA’s additional mandate, to electrify rural areas, set it apart from private companies, whose profit motive discouraged the practice. As Ms. Burke said, they “weren't going to spend the money to send electricity to those places” in areas with few customers.

The Northwest’s Beating Electric Heart

Founded by congress in 1937, the Bonneville Power Administration is one of four regional energy marketing agencies under the U.S. Department of Energy. It was created to sell energy generated by new dams on the Columbia River, like the Bonneville Dam outside of Portland (1937) and the Grand Coulee Dam (1942).

Graphic: The Northwest’s Beating Electric Heart– map of Bonneville Power Administration’s service area

Graphic: Harnessing Northwest Rivers to Meet a Regional Growth Spurt
Graphic: Harnessing Northwest Rivers to Meet a Regional Growth Spurt

Aside from price, the attraction for industry was “an abundance of power was available 24/7,” said Ms. Burke. Ms. Opatrny noted that other power-hungry industries, like primary metals, pulp and paper, steel, and chemicals, also arrived. “They came as the [power] load enabled further development. It was the availability and relatively low cost that brought them in droves,” she said.

The arrival of aluminum production came as World War II broke out. The strong, lightweight metal was crucial to building America’s arsenal. Boeing built bombers with it; Kaiser shipyards along the Pacific coast used it for warships. BPA devoted large electrical resources to the “mystery load,” — power from two of the eight generators at Grand Coulee was set aside to create the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Now 31 dams provide hydropower for the Federal Columbia River Power System. The BPA sells it to 142 of the region’s consumer-owned electrical utilities — public power districts — and six of the area’s eight investor-owned utilities. In 2018, the BPA is the source of about one-third of the region’s electricity, and BPA power reaches California and the Southwest.

Aluminum has long ceased to be the industrial king of the Columbia River. Six decades after 10 aluminum smelters were built, the power-hungry offshoots of a very different industry have followed their footsteps. Almost all of the smelters around the river have been shuttered. About 3 gigawatts of electricity could have remained idle.

After Aluminum’s Decline, A Search for New Customers

Then, in the first decade of the 21st century, technology firms, which need copious and reliable power to run and cool huge data centers, moved in. Would they have come without cheap public power? Unclear.

There were at least two other lures. First, tax breaks. Just as locals did in the 1930s, the towns and counties around the Columbia River competed to attract firms, offering huge tax breaks. Second, the region’s technologically savvy workforce. And some technology executives have expressed a preference for “green” power.

Data centers — the muscles and memory of the Internet — are essential to the reach and profitability of companies like Amazon and Microsoft.They are now in Washington towns like Wenatchee — a former smelter town — and Quincy and Oregon towns like Boardman and Prineville.

Graphic: As Aluminum Cools...Data Centers Spin Up
Graphic: As Aluminum Cools...Data Centers Spin Up


Sources: The Seattle Times, The Oregonian   Geoff McGhee
 

Aluminum and the internet. “Both industries are power-electricity intensive,” said Massoud Jourabchi, manager of economic analysis at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. “The main difference… is that power was a much larger cost of the aluminum industry than of the data centers. Profit margins weren't that high for aluminum.

“…Both needed cheap, reliable power, but the revenue picture was not the same. You're dealing with selling aluminum versus selling advertising. … The margins and the industries are quite different — and they're at different stages of their life cycle,” Mr. Jourabchi said.

How Would Salmon Fare Under a Privatized BPA?

The notion that Columbia River hydropower is environmentally sound gets strong pushback from Native Americans and environmentalists, who point to the decimation of salmon species. Their age-old journeys downriver to the ocean as juveniles and upriver to spawn as adults are impeded by dams. Manipulations of the river system have added further insults.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists 13 Columbia or Snake River stocks of salmonids as threatened or endangered. The BPA spends $250 million to $300 million a year on recovery methods like habitat restoration, fish hatcheries, and fish ladders. The total exceeds $621 million annually when one includes things like debt service and loss of revenue when river water is deployed to help salmon, not to generate electricity.

Since managing the dams and selling cheap hydropower is a federal job, does that mean salmon recovery efforts have more funding with federal control of power than if private firms were in charge? Northwestern tribal leaders think so. Fishing experts working with Native American groups say that private utilities are responsible to a tough boss that BPA doesn't have: shareholders. And private firms have no legal responsibility to honor the 19th century treaties guaranteeing fishing rights. Tribes have opposed privatization of the BPA.

An Island of Green: Irrigated agriculture on the banks of the Columbia River northeast of Yakima.
An Island of Green Irrigated agriculture on the banks of the Columbia River northeast of Yakima.   JBrew via Flickr

Lowering the Cost of Agriculture... and Enabling Irrigation

Agriculture is another industry whose needs Bonneville has served over the decades. As David Freyberg, an associate professor of civil engineering at Stanford University, explained, “The cost of delivering irrigation water is partially subsidized by the sale of electricity. So even though the power [from Bonneville] is cheap, some of that goes to subsidize the delivery of irrigation water. If the power were private, that would not have happened at all.”

And, he said, “farming uses a good bit of energy. There are a lot of groundwater wells, for example. The lower price of electricity does facilitate agriculture.” He added, “If power were private, the lack of irrigation would have precluded agriculture.”

From ‘Economic Backwater’ to Vital and Balanced Economy

No cheap power, less aluminum. No cheap power, probably less of a war industry. No cheap power, a slower migration of electricity into farmland, so a slower rise of the region's orchards and wine industry. No cheap power, less to attract data centers.

Reviewing the full regional picture, Mr. Jourabchi said, “The whole economy of the Northwest is resource based. Having access to reliable electricity at below-national-average prices has helped bring that kind of industry into the region. If we didn't have cheap power what would industries have done? It's the cart and the horse. … You might have had more efficient kind of productivity if you had a more expensive cost.”

But cheap public power, he said, “has certainly made a contribution to the development of the Northwest.” Not a small one. No cheap power, less aluminum. No cheap power, probably less of a war industry. No cheap power, a slower migration of electricity into farmland, so a slower rise of the region's orchards and wine industry. No cheap power, less to attract data centers.

“The Pacific Northwest began as an economic backwater, more like a colony that would send raw materials to the nation's industrialized centers and purchase … finished products,” explained Jeff Hammarlund, a recently retired professor at Portland State University, specializing in Northwest energy policy. “As a result of our low-cost, reliable, and virtually carbon-free power system, our region has blossomed into a more vital and balanced economy based largely on energy-intensive industries. We've become an important center for innovation that contributes benefits extending far beyond the Columbia River basin.”

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Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Melina Walling, Benek Robertson, Maya Burke, Kate Selig and Francisco L. Nodarse

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An Exploration of the Reasons to Cherish Microbiotic Soils. Fungi, lichen, cyanobacteria, algae, and other tiny organisms live in just the top few millimeters of soil; these crusts are critical to the health of the desert, and can be damaged repeated trampling by people, cattle, or off-road vehicles. Sierra Club

Some Ecological Damage from Trump’s Rushed Border Wall Could Be Repaired; conservationists are urging the Biden administration to remove sections of the barrier that cut across critical habitats, block migration corridors, and damage watersheds. The coalition opposing the wall has identified specific problematic sections to be potentially removed. Scientific American

Tens of Millions of Birds Pass Through Two Corridors in the West: California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta. New research finds that more than 82 million birds pass through these regions during spring migration, with tree swallows concentrating in the Colorado delta and Anna’s hummingbirds in the Central Valley. This data helps define critical habitats for western birds, with up to 80 percent of some species’ populations passing through the two areas. Yale Environment 360

The Navajo Generating Station, a Major Employer and a Major Polluter on Navajo Land, has Been Demolished after Navajo and Hopi community members fought for years to close the facility. Now, Navajo and Hopi community members are outlining steps for community restoration, such as securing electricity and clean water access for residents, as well as job training. Center For Health, Environment And Justice

Articles Worth Reading: January 19, 2020

A Forever Drought Takes Hold in the West. The U.S. Drought Monitor — the nation’s official tally — shows Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico mired in “exceptional drought.” This type of drought is only supposed to happen every 50 years, but it’s now a regular occurrence. Even if rain and snow arrive in the coming months, parched soil will slurp it up, leaving less for riverbeds. Axios

“We’re Bound by That River,” one water expert said of the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what’s on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.” The Colorado Basin and its water managers must juggle the laws that are decades old, new agreements and persistent aridity. The huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead have shrunk dramatically. Some observers say the rules governing distribution of the Colorado’s waters need to be fundamentally reimagined. Arizona Republic

Unlikely Coalitions Form to Block New Port Facilities to export fossil fuels. Teaming with Native Americans, ranchers and sportsmen, environmentalists have worked to block nearly every effort to export coal, oil and liquified natural gas from the West Coast. They just claimed another major victory this month – the latest of more than two dozen -- when a proposed coal-export terminal in Washington state was called off. Associated Press

“Fossil” Groundwater Is Being Depleted in California, and its users can’t rely on it being replenished any century soon, according to new study. If the water tucked underground for 100 centuries is used for the crops and pools of the 21st century, the fossil water stores will disappear for good. “It’s just like taking gold out of the ground, out of a mountain,” said Menso de Jong, the study’s lead author. “The gold is not going to grow back.” San Jose Mercury News

Apaches Sue to Stop First Step in Approval of Copper Mine Near Sacred Site. If an environmental study’s publication is blocked, the process of approving the mine planned by Resolution Copper might be derailed. A podcast interview with the reporter covering the controversy, Debra Utacia Krol of The Arizona Republic. KSUT

To Help Rural Economies, One-Third of Spotted Owl Habitat in Oregon Was Excluded from Protection. The size of the protected acreage has yo-yoed from one administration to the next, but this cut in protected areas is one of the biggest on record. The amount of habitat protected in the Obama administration was more than 9 million acres; the Trump administration in its final days cut that by more than 3 million acres. E&E News

Rural Coloradans Seek to Contain Light Pollution. NASA photos of Colorado from space show a widening urban white-out reaching into rural areas. The dark-sky zones that southwestern Colorado leaders are proposing in areas like the San Luis Valley would, all combined, cover more than 3,800 square miles — the largest official area protected from artificial light on the planet. Denver Post

Wildlife Take Stock of Photographers Taking Stock of Wildlife. “Animals interrupting wildlife photographers,” a thread by the Catalan journalist Joaquim Campa. Twitter

Articles Worth Reading: December 7, 2020

New Data Shows Lethal Damage to Coho Salmon Is From Tire Residue, as researchers double-down on the findings about tires’ environmental damage. One chemical, 6PPD-quinone, interacts with ozone and becomes highly toxic to Puget Sound salmon, taking out 40 to 80 percent of returning salmon before the spawn. The problem extends from Washington state, where scientists have been studying the issue, to California; tires are the largest source of microplastics in San Francisco Bay. The Seattle Times Los Angeles Times

With Legal Barriers Gone, More Westerners Are Harvesting Rain to supplement the disappearing water in the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer. Rainwater harvesting—a cheap, low-barrier, low-energy method—may provide one piece of the long-term solution to water shortages in a region where climate change is intensifying droughts. Today, rainwater capture is legal in every state, though many have restrictions. A few, like Colorado, didn’t legalize it until 2016 and still restrict the total amount harvested. The Counter

A Navajo-Majority County Commission in Utah Calls for Restoring the Bears’ Ears Monument to its original size. The Trump Administration dramatically reduced the monument from 1.35 million acres to two separate areas totaling 200,000 acres. The San Juan County Commission voted 2-to-1 to make the request, with its two Navajo members in the majority. Associated Press

In the Wake of Fierce Fires, A Sudden Burst of Logging in Colorado. State foresters are overseeing wholesale mechanized tree-cutting, as tractors dig holes up to 140 acres in size are appearing among the lodgepole pines. A hot national wood-products market snaps up the lumber created in Colorado, which has never traditionally been a logging state. Across western Colorado, insect attacks on old and drought-enfeebled trees over the past decade have left 5 million acres of skeletal trees in a region climate change has made susceptible to wildfire. This year, 700,000 acres burned. Denver Post

As Insurers Blanch at Newly Calculated Wildfire Losses — $24 Billion in the U.S. in 2018, they continue to flee fire prone areas. In California alone in 20219, insurers pulled coverage from more than 230,000 homes — about 31 percent more than the year before. California regulators want to keep private insurers from fleeing the state, but know that climate change is changing everyone’s risk calculation. Bloomberg

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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