Overview of Hydropower in the Northwest

America’s Largest Renewable Resource

About 20% of the world’s electricity is generated by using hydropower. In the United States, this resource accounts for 12% of the nation’s supply of electricity. This 12% can be thought of in the following ways:

  • Hydropower produces more than 90,000 megawatts of electricity annually, which is enough to meet the needs of 28.3 million consumers
  • Hydropower accounts for over 90% of all electricity that comes from renewable resources (e.g.— solar, geothermal, wind, biomass).
  • Hydropower is generated at only 3% of the nation’s 80,000 dams.

In the Northwest, hydropower is an even bigger part of each person’s daily life. Up to 80% of the electricity in the Northwest is produced by hydropower each year. That’s enough electricity to meet the needs of 13.6 million homes. And because hydropower is one of the lowest cost forms of energy, most Northwest residents have a significantly lower electric bill than residents in other parts of the country.

How Hydropower Works

The process starts with the annual hydrologic, or water cycle, providing seasonal rain and runoff from snowpack. The runoff from rain and snow collects in lakes, streams and rivers and flows to dams downstream. The water funnels through a dam, into a powerhouse and turns a large wheel called a turbine. The turbine turns a shaft that rotates a series of magnets past copper coils in a generator to create electricity. The water then returns to the river. From the powerhouse, transmission lines carry electricity to communities.

Rivers, Our Quality of Life and Hydropower

Rivers, lakes and streams are nature’s way of collecting water from the hydrologic cycle and carrying it back to the ocean for the cycle to begin again. Plants and animals depend on both this cycle and the rivers for survival. As human interaction with rivers increases, maintaining a balance with the plants and wildlife that also depend on the river system becomes more complex and diverse.

Throughout history, people have hunted and fished along rivers. For centuries, rivers have been used to irrigate land for crops. And for generations, paddle wheels used hydropower to harness the force of falling water. With the advent of hydropower, man could operate mills for such things as grinding grain and cutting timber. In harmony with the current, rivers also serve as arteries for passage of fish beneath the surface and all manner of boats above the surface. All of these interactions and shifting balances began before the advent of hydroelectric power production.

Hydropower came of age at the turn of the century when many technological advances were being put in place to further tap the ability of the hydrologic cycle and rivers to help meet the needs 8 of society. Technology became available to build larger dams that could better control flooding and irrigate more land. For instance the Grand Coulee Dam, which has the capacity to generate more electricity than any other dam in North America, was built with the primary purpose of turning the Northwest into another bread basket for the nation. Along with other irrigation projects, six percent of the Columbia River Basin’s yearly runoff is now diverted to irrigate about 7.6 million acres of land annually. And with the development of locks and other technologies, larger and larger cargo vessels were able to navigate rivers. In the Northwest, the result is that each year about 17 million tons of cargo are carried along the Columbia and Snake rivers from the Pacific Ocean.

Using hydropower to generate electricity is part of this technological leap. The best known hydroelectric projects are associated with the large dams that have large reservoirs which generate thousands of megawatts of electricity on demand. In fact, the six largest dams in Oregon, Washington and Idaho account for 50% of available hydroelectric power in these states.

For the Northwest as a whole, there are about 160 hydroelectric projects. For the projects which use reservoirs, there are also new recreational opportunities that many people have come to enjoy. Many hydroelectric projects, however, do not use a reservoir. These are called “run-of-river” projects because they do not store significant amounts of water. Instead, they rely on the normal river flow. Previous generations successfully harnessed this renewable resource in a manner that has developed a standard of living in a way few would consider giving up. Using rivers to meet so many needs, however, also results in significant environmental and cultural impacts. Addressing these impacts and maintaining a balance with the plants, fish and wildlife that also depend on the river has never been more difficult. This and future generations are being asked to meet this challenge.

Hydropower and the Environmental Balance

As mentioned, dams that are part a hydroelectric project also help control flooding. And by using this renewable resource, up to 249 tons of carbon dioxide is not released into the earth’s atmosphere each year because fossil fuels like oil and coal are not burned to generate electricity. Because the release of carbon dioxide contributes to environmental concerns related to ozone and global warming, hydropower represents an important environmental benefit in this regard.

Hydroelectric projects, like any energy resource, do have environmental impacts. In the Northwest, the most serious concerns often relate to fish passage. The 1992 listing of sockeye salmon and three other stocks of chinook salmon (spring, summer and fall) as endangered species intensified historic and continuing debates over restoring fish runs. Releasing water to speed up downstream fish migration has been one of many measures taken to preserve fish runs. In 1994, for instance, nearly 11 million acre feet of water was made available to help juvenile salmon and steelhead migrate downstream.

Measures such as water releases, however, are being taken within the context of scientific inquiry and research that is the subject of much debate. For these reasons, the hydro industry and others continue to explore and implement several mitigation strategies that address hatchery, habitat, harvesting, and hydro operation practices. Examples of such strategies include fish screens, surface collection and bypass systems, fish ladders, strobe lights, the catching of squawfish that prey on juvenile salmon, and new turbine designs. In fact, since the 1980s over 2 billion dollars has been spent on salmon recovery measures by Northwest ratepayers. As these efforts continue, scientific inquiry and research findings will continue to play a central role in guiding efforts.

The hydroelectric industry, however, cannot address environmental issues— e.g., fish migration or preserving wildlife habitats, in isolation from other industries and individuals that use the rivers. Every action and every user of a river is part of the overall balance. As a result, any search for balance that considers the Northwest’s interests as a whole also needs to calculate and mitigate the effects of multiple impacts. Examples include irrigation, timber, mining and the building of homes and industries near the river system. In the case of salmon, for instance, ocean fishing that captures salmon returning to the river system is part of the overall balance.

Voices In The Development or Maintenance of Hydropower

Most hydroelectric projects across the United States are licensed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Many of these licenses, which are required to operate a hydroelectric project, are coming up for renewal during the next ten years. A central piece of receiving a new license is to examine environmental impacts and include the public in both reviewing and considering mitigation and enhancement strategies regarding these impacts. For anyone interested in the river system, becoming informed and heard in these debates is vitally important.

The process for being heard, however, extends well beyond engaging with those who generate hydropower and FERC. Numerous federal and state agencies can become involved in the process. Examples include the National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Parks Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, state fish and wildlife agencies, state water resource agencies and the state agency with Clean Water Act authority. Beyond this crisscrossing of government authority are many tribal governments and non-profit groups with significant interests and concerns. Examples of non-profit groups include American Rivers, the Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited, fishing and hunting associations, and boating groups.

With so many interests participating, and because the issues being addressed are often quite complex, the relicensing process often takes between five to ten years to complete. Regardless of length, becoming an early and informed participant is of benefit to all.

The Nature of Water Power curriculum enables students to begin the process of becoming participants in these very important water and energy issues.

For additional information about the Nature of Water Power or other materials available from FWEE, call (509) 535-7084 or email us.