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Key House Members Raise Dam Breach Reliability Concerns in Letter to FERC

In a recent letter sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris (R-WA) and Energy, Climate, and Grid Security Subcommittee Chair Jeff Duncan (R-SC) voice concerns about the threat to reliability if the Lower Snake River dams are breached.

The Feb. 21 letter was sent to FERC Chair Willie Phillips and FERC Commissioners Mark Christie and Allison Clements.

“Hydroelectric dams throughout the Columbia River Basin are essential to electric reliability in the western United States. Nearly 70 percent of hydropower capacity of the facilities in the basin are owned and operated by the federal government through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR),” the lawmakers noted.

The electricity from these units is transported and marketed by the federal Bonneville Power Administration. Another 19 percent of the Columbia River basin's hydroelectric capacity is owned and operated by municipally owned utilities, including the 1,040-megawatt Boundary plant owned by the city of Seattle.

“Numerous state and federal agencies are involved in planning and operations of the Columbia River System. The USACE and the BOR own and operate the federal water projects on the Columbia and its tributaries,” the letter pointed out.

The BPA markets the power generated from the federal projects and distributes power from federal and non-federal projects throughout the west via bilateral contracts and through the Western Energy Imbalance Market. These dispatchable hydropower resources, and the electricity produced by them, “undoubtedly safeguard electric reliability in the western United States,” McMorris and Duncan said.

In September 2023, President Biden issued a Presidential Memorandum directing federal agencies to prioritize the restoration of healthy and abundant salmon, steelhead, and other native fish populations in the Columbia River Basin.

On December 14, 2023, the Biden administration released the Draft Mediated Agreement entitled “U.S. Government Commitments in Support for the Columbia Basin Restoration Initiative and in Partnership with the Six Sovereigns.”

The agreement was filed in the District Court in Oregon and sets out commitments made by the Federal Government and implemented through a memorandum of understanding between the United States; the States of Oregon and Washington; the Nez Pearce, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Yakama Tribes; and environmental non-profit organizations.

That same day, December 14, 2023, the Biden administration announced that it had filed an agreement in the Federal District Court in Oregon, establishing commitments made by the Federal government and implemented through a MOU.

“The agreement lays the groundwork for eventually breaching these dams, rendering them unable to produce affordable, dispatchable, reliable, and renewable electricity for millions,” the lawmakers said.

“The Biden administration’s MOU would spend more than $1 billion in preparation for breaching the four Lower Snake River dams, although only Congress may authorize the removal of the dams,” they pointed out.

The MOU also contains significant Department of Energy funding commitments to the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, and the Nez Perce Tribe to deploy “clean, renewable, socially-just energy resources” to serve as “replacement” power for the Lower Snake River dams.

According to the MOU, the “clean, renewable, socially-just energy resources” to replace the electricity from the dams include “distributed energy resources… efficiency and demand response, other generation, storage, and transmission resources.” 

“This represents yet another example of economic, dispatchable, and reliable generation being forced out of the markets, not by economics and market forces, but by ill-conceived public policy priorities that lack a fundamental understanding of the electric system,” McMorris and Duncan said.

“We are concerned that the Biden administration failed to consider the impact of dam breaches on electric reliability when conducting its secret negotiations,” they added.

FERC “should have been involved in these discussions in order to ensure misguided policies do not further undermine grid reliability. The lower Snake River dams provide over 3,000 MW of affordable nameplate capacity that communities in the western United States depend on for reliability and resource adequacy.”

“As noted in responses to our letter dated December 29, 2023, Chairman Phillips stated that ‘we cannot, as a country, afford to retire resources on which we depend for reliability without ensuring that they are replaced with sufficient resources to meet resource adequacy and other system needs.’ This includes the affordable, dispatchable, and renewable hydroelectric dams in the Columbia River Basin that millions of Americans depend on for reliability,” the lawmakers said.

In fact, during the most recent cold snap in the Pacific Northwest, federal dams, including the lower Snake River dams, were vital to keeping the lights on by producing over 1,000 MW of electricity each day to help BPA and the region meet high demands, they noted, citing a recent news release from BPA.

They asked FERC to answer a set of questions by March 6, 2024.

Among other things, the lawmakers want to know:

  • If FERC was consulted as part of the Columbia River Basin negotiations to examine or explain the impacts on electric reliability relating to the commitments contained in the MOU;
  • If FERC will coordinate with other Federal entities, like BPA and the Administration, to examine the reliability impacts of the potential loss of dispatchable, clean, renewable hydroelectric power in the west as the MOU is implemented; and
  • How FERC considers the negative impacts of policies that displace reliable generation when fulfilling its mission to safeguard reliability
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