Up to 80% of the electricity in the Northwest is produced by hydropower. Historically, hydropower has been one of the most inexpensive and most efficient sources of electricity in the region. In the Northwest, for example, electricity from hydropower typically costs $10 per megawatt hour to produce. This compares to $60, $45 and $25 per megawatt hour to produce electricity, respectively, at nuclear, coal and natural gas plants. To determine these price comparisons, planners calculate what it costs to build, maintain and operate these differing generation facilities.

This source of inexpensive electricity was a major attraction for energy intensive industries such as aluminum, food processing, and the production of plutonium for national defense. Other industries, such as aerospace, were attracted to this area beca use they wanted proximity to a resource, in this case aluminum, being manufactured in the Northwest. In addition, the mining industry was a major beneficiary because inexpensive electricity greatly reduced the costs of extracting various metals.

Individuals benefited as well. For instance, hydropower was the first source of electricity for many rural areas. Further, the cost of owning and maintaining a more comfortable home was less. Specifically, inexpensive electricity meant installing electric heaters, dryers, stoves and other appliances was in easy reach of the many, not the few.

Today, natural resource and manufacturing industries are becoming less vital to the Northwest’s economy. Indeed, one forecast shows that the non-manufacturing share of total regional employment could grow to nearly 89 percent by the year 2015. As a result, the Northwest’s traditional dependence on inexpensive electricity to fuel the economy has declined somewhat.

On the other hand, the Northwest’s population is continuing to boom. From 1980 to 2010, population is expected to increase from eight to almost twelve million people. Each of these individuals is a consumer of electricity. To continue to receive the individual benefits of inexpensive electricity, maintaining hydropower as a resource is as important as ever.

And while the dollar cost of hydropower is highlighted here, the environmental costs and benefits of this renewable resource are very important as well.