Bill to expand hydropower nationally back in play

Dan Newhouse

Two of the staunchest supporters of the four lower Snake River dams are pushing legislation that calls for the expansion of hydropower across the country and promotes innovation in the industry.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, both Republicans representing the east side of Washington, reintroduced their Hydropower Clean Energy Act on Thursday. The bill was first introduced in Congress last year. It affirms hydropower as an essential renewable energy source, cuts red tape and regulation, and pushes for the development of more efficient turbines and projects.

“In order to address climate change, we must prioritize the continued development of hydropower resources and promote free-market technological innovation,” McMorris Rodgers said. “This legislation supports these important goals, and it will help us develop the next-generation hydro technology needed to increase clean energy production, further decrease environmental impact, and allow America to lead on sustainability.”

“Supporting hydropower technology will not only increase the efficiency of power generation, but it will create good-paying jobs and ensure that we can continue to transition into a clean energy future,” Newhouse said.

The two Republicans were among the quickest to criticize the concept unveiled by Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, last month that proposes saving Snake River salmon and steelhead by breaching dams between the Tri-Cities and Lewiston and simultaneously investing $33 billion in affected communities and industries. Breaching the dams would eliminate about 1,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power generation per year and eliminate barge transportation between Lewiston and the Tri-Cities.

McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse released a joint statement even before Simpson’s plan was unveiled calling the dams the “beating heart” of eastern Washington and calling any salmon-saving efforts centered on breaching flawed.

While Simpson has said he doesn’t think Idaho’s salmon and steelhead runs can survive if the four lower Snake River dams remain in place, he is a fan in other hydroelectric projects. In fact, his concept calls for some of the very same innovation into alternative hydroelectric technology that his two Republican colleagues from the Evergreen State are backing in their legislation.

For example, they want to make it easier to develop pumped storage projects by removing regulatory barriers. Pumped storage facilities exchange water between two reservoirs at different elevations. During times of peak electricity demand and high prices, water from the upper reservoir is moved to the lower reservoir by sending it through a hydroelectric turbine. When demand and prices are low, water is pumped from the lower to the upper reservoir, thereby recharging the system.

Simpson outlined pumped storage as one of many options that could be pursued to replace lost hydropower if the lower Snake River dams are breached. He also called for investments in battery storage that would capture some of the surplus hydropower available at certain times of year.

The McMorris Rodgers and Newhouse bill calls for making it easier to license and renew licencing for hydroelectric projects. Simpson’s plan would automatically renew, for a period of 35 years, Federal Energy Regulatory Commissions licenses on all other dams in the Columbia River.

He would also institute a 35-year moratorium on salmon-related lawsuits at the remaining hydroelectric dams in the basin.

His chief of staff, Lindsay Slater, said Friday that Simpson is “very supportive” of hydropower and could become a co-sponsor of the legislation.

“Mike always says hydropower is the cheapest, cleanest, most efficient mode of energy generation there is,” he said.

Simpson has not said yet how he will attempt to advance his concept and garner political support for it. While McMorris Rodgers, Newhouse and Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho, and other Northwest Republicans have come out against his concept, others appear to be sitting on the sidelines. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, of Washington, and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, of Oregon, all Democrats, issued a vague statement following Simpson’s announcement that neither signaled support nor opposition.

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch voiced support for the dams but also said they would study the concept.

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.