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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, Maya Burke, Kate Selig, Francisco L. Nodarse, Devon Burger, and Madison Pobis

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Articles Worth Reading: October 20, 2020

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Washington State Firm to Abandon Coal, Which May Keep Coal Pollution Going in Montana. Puget Sound Energy’s plan to sell for $1 its stake in Montana’s Colstrip Generating Station needs approval by agencies in both states. If it gets them, it can meet Washington State rules to abandon coal-burning resources by 2025. Montana’s NorthWestern Energy, which wants to keep one unit of the plant going until 2042, would have more say in its future. E&E News

A Push for Statehood For the Navajo Nation comes as congressional Democrats raising the possibility of making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico into states, voices from the Southwest are reviving the idea of a state, perhaps called Dinétah, to give the region a more powerful voice in national affairs, and increase federal payments. Indian Country Today

Reaching Beyond El Niño Observations, Scientists Examine Distant Ocean Conditions as a key think to predict Western droughts, particularly those affecting the Colorado River, two years in advance. Researchers looked at the most extreme drought years in the past 120 years and found they almost always followed a distinct pattern of unusual warm spells in the tropical reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. up to four years in advance, followed by warming in the northern Pacific two year later. Science

Pursuing Endangered Salmon, California Sea Lions Range Deeper into the Columbia River. NOAA fisheries and researchers at the University of Washington published a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology detailing increased predation of salmon by sea lions. The Columbia River is home to the Chinook Salmon Run, an extremely important ecological niche for the movement of nitrogen throughout the watersheds of the West coast. California sea lions, facing hunger in their more coastal native habitats, have in recent years begun traveling farther and farther upstream to hunt salmon. These hunting migrations are most prevalent before they depart for southern California breeding grounds. Devdiscourse

As Consensus Favoring Prescribed Burns Increases, Rates of Controlled Fires Still Fall in Washington State. Like many states in the West facing challenging fire seasons, Washington has been slow to financially invest in the requirements for effective controlled burning. Crosscut

Articles Worth Reading: October 12, 2020

California Announces Plan to Conserve 30% of State’s Land and Coastal Waters by 2030 as part of the state’s fight against climate change. The effort comes on the back of a growing movement by environmental groups, scientific organizations and the National Geographic Society to advance the “30 x 30” goal: preserve at least 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030. While the decision drew criticism from Republicans, environmentalists praised the announcement as key toward addressing a host of environmental issues in the state. San Jose Mercury News

Montana Asks Court to Throw Out Major Public Lands Decisions after federal judge ousted Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) acting director from his post. The decisions include BLM plans to open up hundreds of thousands of acres for oil and gas drilling. In response, the Department of the Interior argues that former BLM director William Perry Pendley took “no relevant acts” to be thrown out. Pendley served unlawfully for 424 days. The Hill

EPA Grants Oklahoma Environmental Oversight in Indian Country. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s request to the EPA allows the state — not Indigneous nations — to regulate environmental issues in Indian Country. While the decision was welcomed by Oklahoma’s state oil and gas industry, Cherokee Nation and Muscogee (Creek) Nation quickly denounced the decision. “This was a swift move meant to circumvent the federal government's trust, duty and obligation to consult with the tribal nations concerned,” wrote Muscogee Nation’s press secretary in a statement. Washington Post Indian Country Today

Experts Developing Plan for Trout Recovery in Los Angeles. Biologists and engineers are setting the state for a “fish passage” through downtown L.A. that would aid in the recovery of the Southern California steelhead trout, a threatened species. Concrete and treated urban runoff in the L.A. River channel blocks the trout from returning to local rivers to spawn. The recovery effort could rival the return of the gray wolf, bald eagle and California condor. Los Angeles Times

The Votes Cast, a Fat Bear is Crowned in Alaska. Every year, the Katmai National Park and Preserve holds Fat Bear Week, an online competition that allows individuals to vote on large bears, in an effort to raise awareness about the park’s wildlife. This year’s champion? Bear 747 (named in reference to the Boeing 747), weighing in at more than 1,400 pounds. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: October 6, 2020

The Royal Bank of Canada is Withholding Financing for Drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, citing its “particular ecological and social significance and vulnerability.” This policy change may be part of a paradigm shift for major financial institutions, which finance and drive the majority of oil and gas development. The bank’s pledge comes after the U.S. Department of the Interior’s recent decision to open up the refuge for development. RBC joins five major U.S.-based banks in this decision to not finance development in the ANWR, including Goldman Sachs, Wells Fargo, and J.P. Morgan Chase. The Narwhal

A Devastating Fire Season Just Keeps Going: to date, California wildfires have consumed four million acres as 8,200 fires in August killed 31 people and destroyed more than 8,400 buildings. Burning through 100,000 acres, the August complex fire in Mendocino County is the largest on record, “at nearly five times the size of New York City.” It is only 54 percent contained by weary fire fighters. Increasing temperatures exacerbate the fires’ intensity; their effects are being experienced at greater distances, as hazardous air quality conditions extend across the continent. The Guardian

An in-depth video shows the severity of California’s fires and what to worry about now, like mudslides. San Jose Mercury News

Canadian Indigenous Groups Looking to Invest in the Keystone XL Oil Pipeline which Indigenous groups in the United States oppose. Four First Nations groups in Alberta and one in Saskatchewan are pursuing an equity interest in the pipeline, signing a memorandum between the pipeline developer, TC Energy, and Natural Law Energy, which represents the Three Maskwacis Nations and the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, in Alberta, and the Nekaneet First Nation in Saskatchewan. The idea is to create a long-term partnership. Neither party explicitly commented on the Indigenous-activist led resistance movement to the pipeline. Members of the Lakota Nation and the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux who led a delegation to the U.S.-Canadian border for an anti-pipeline prayer ceremony in mid-summer, described a Native employee of TC Energy “a traitor.” Kallanish Energy Billings Gazette

Snake River Dams Not Going Anywhere After Federal Decision to Release More Water for as much as 16 hours daily to help stabilize the population of fish, particularly Chinook salmon, that have suffered serious decline in the entire Columbia River watershed. The plan adopted by three federal agencies won praise from groups representing farmers and loggers, but skepticism from conservationists and dismissal from the Nez Perce tribe. Boise State Public Radio

Solar Energy Expansion Is in Overdrive in West Texas; the state has 17 solar facilities, including 13 with capacities of at least 100 megawatts of power. With intense sun and large swaths of empty land where major solar farms can spread out, West Texas has long been ideal for solar development. Texas’ free-market approach and loose regulations encourage all big electricity projects, including solar. The cost of developing solar farms has dropped about 40 percent in Texas in the last five years, according to an industry association. Texas Observer

Clam Gardens, Revived on the Beaches of British Columbia, are expanding crustacean habitat using an age-old Native practice of flattening the shoreline with small rock walls and tilling the sand to improve aeration. Using these methods and removing predators like the sea star allows the Wsáneć, Hul’q’umi’num, and Stz’uminus First Nations to expand the habitat for butter, littleneck, and horse clams, plus crabs, chitons, seaweeds, and other useful species. Generations of Native land stewards continued this practice even when overrun by colonial settlers who passed laws criminalizing the work. The Guardian

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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