This section first focuses on how the hydroelectric system within the Northwest operates. It then focuses on how laws, agencies and agreements can affect the operation of projects individually and collectively.
As background, let’s consider the nature of what has occurred in just over 100 years. In 1879 Edison invented the light bulb; in the 1880s the first hydroelectric projects in the country were developed; and in 1879, the first commercial, long distance transmission of electricity took place in Oregon when a direct-current line provided power from Willamette Falls to street lights in Portland.
These achievements were as important to our economic and social development as microprocessing chips and personal computers are today. At the time, however, no one could have imagined how the hydroelectric generation, transmission and distribution system would grow into today’s structure. As a result, planning, system development and maintenance of the hydroelectric system has evolved over time. In the most simplistic terms, this evolution has occurred in tandem with the region’s needs for electricity and knowledge regarding environmental protection.
In terms of how the system developed to meet increased demands for electricity, let’s begin by looking at the three goals that guide the use of the Columbia River system to generate hydropower. These goals are to:
1) Use hydroelectric projects to meet the bulk of the Northwest’s “firm” energy needs.
At hydroelectric projects, firm energy is the amount of electricity that can be generated even when the amount of available water (the equivalent of fuel needed for generators to produce electricity) is at a historical low. Given estimates for how much electricity the Northwest will use each year, planners rely on varied sources of firm energy, e.g.– coal and natural gas, to make sure enough electricity is available for everyone.
2) Replenish all reservoirs annually.
3) Maximize “nonfirm” energy production.
Once enough electricity has been generated to meet requirements for firm energy (goal one), “nonfirm energy” can be generated. This occurs when the hydrologic cycle makes more water (fuel) available for power generation than in a historically low water year. To the extent nonfirm energy is available from hydroelectric projects, it is likely to be purchased by those who distribute power to homes and businesses because it is generally less expensive than alternatives such as nuclear, coal or natural gas.
The Columbia River system, however, is not utilized with hydroelectric generation needs taking precedence over all other uses. In fact, only 25% of the region’s projects are devoted solely for the purpose of generating hydropower. As a result, the goals that support generation of hydroelectricity must work within a broader set of goals. For instance, maximizing the use of hydropower must be balanced with priorities such as flood control, navigation and irrigation. And recently, the National Marine Fisheries Service declared that salmon recovery was a higher priority than all other purposes except flood control at the 14 Federal projects that form the heart beat of how the system operates. Because of these broader goals and the balancing of priorities, the Columbia is referred to as a multiple-use river system.
And when thinking about hydroelectric projects, it is also important to remember that no two projects are quite the same. Consider the following:
Within the Northwest, there are over 250 projects that generate five or more megawatts of electricity. Many of these projects are small and some are very large. In fact, the six largest projects in Oregon, Washington and Idaho account for about 50% of available hydroelectric power in these states.
Some hydroelectric projects use reservoirs to store water for use when electricity is in highest demand, others do not.
The structure of each hydroelectric project, e.g.– the type of turbine(s) and fish passage facilities used, can be quite different.
How electricity generated at a project is transmitted and sold to utilities or large industrial customers varies. For instance, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) transmits and sells the power generated at federal projects. Non-federal operators are responsible for coordinating the sale and transmission of power as well as producing it at their projects.
Depending on factors like size, structure, location and ownership of projects, differing laws, agencies and agreements can have a dramatically different effect on how projects are operated.
By focusing on some major characteristics of hydroelectric projects, attributes that both bind and distinguish projects can be further defined. For more information about how the river system supports flood control, irrigation, navigation and recreation, visit the section “What Makes The Columbia River Basin Unique and How We Benefit.” A link to this section is provided at the end of this narrative piece.