Owners and Operators of Hydroelectric Projects

A number of public and private entities own and operate hydroelectric projects in the Northwest.

Indeed, who owns and operates which projects is a rich history by itself. Issues such as how to best protect and maximize the public interest, assure the multi-use nature of a river or tributary, finance the development of a project, determine appropriate use of public waterways, and work with tribal sovereignty are all part of the story. As the system matured over the past hundred years, owners and operators came to include the federal government, public utilities and private utilities.

The Federal Government: Beginning with construction of the Bonneville Dam in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers began development of multiple-use water projects in the Northwest. Many of these are very large projects whose benefits often included navigation, flood control, irrigation and power generation. Currently, there are 22 such projects operated by the Corps.

The Bureau of Reclamation is another Federal agency. The Bureau developed nine projects, including the Grand Coulee Dam. These projects are also multi-use systems which, in contrast to Corps projects, came about because of the opportunity to irrigate thousands of acres of land.

Together, there are 31 federal projects that represent over 50% of the generating capacity in the Northwest.

Publicly Owned Utilities: These are utilities that are owned by the public and belong to the people they serve. Such utilities largely fall into two broad categories: municipally owned utilities and utility districts. Municipally owned utilities, like those in Seattle and Tacoma, are “arms” of city government. Policy decisions are made by the city’s elected governing body or a utility board formed by the city. Projects are owned and operated with the best interest of the city in mind.

Public (called People’s in Oregon) Utility Districts are referred to as PUDs. These districts are governmental corporations and formed and operated by a vote of the people. Compared to municipal utilities, the main difference is that they are not part of a larger governmental body. There are 28 hydroelectric projects that are owned and operated by PUDs. Collectively, they have a generating capacity of 5,706 megawatts of electricity.

Privately Owned Utilities: These utilities also fall into two broad catagories. The first is privately owned utilities which are shareholder-owned corporations. Shareholders bear the risk of bonds needed to build facilities and on-going operational costs. Whether shareholders live in the area being served or not, they also receive the benefit of profits that are made by a project’s efficient operation. In the Northwest, investor owned utilities operate over 50 projects that generate 10 or more megawatts of electricity annually. They have a generating capacity of 4,145 megawatts of electricity.

The second category is independent power producers, which are privately owned companies established for the purpose of generating power. A federal law passed in 1978 assisted these producers by requiring utilities to purchase power from them if the price reflected what would have been paid if the utilitiy had to develop additional generating capacity on its own. This law was specifically designed to encourage development of small-scale cogeneration and renewable resource projects like hydropower.

Ownership of hydroelectric projects also includes irrigation districts and cooperatives. These projects are not large and account for only a small amount of the hydropower that is generated in the Northwest.

Depending on whether projects are federally, publicly or privately owned, their mission, interaction with the public they serve, and the effect of various regulations can vary dramatically. Examples include options for how the public can influence a project’s operation, what agency authorizes and regulates a project’s operation, and how power is brought from a generation facility to homes and businesses. In short, ownership and operation is quite diverse and makes issues related to coordination and cooperation more complex.