Matheson to Congress: Snake River Dams Are Vital to Power Supply in Northwest

Efforts to breach the four Lower Snake River dams in Washington state threaten the future of the region’s power supply, putting dozens of Northwest electric cooperatives and their consumer-members at risk, NRECA CEO Jim Matheson told a House panel Tuesday.

“Hydroelectric power generated by the Columbia River System is the foundation of the electric grid in the Northwest,” Matheson told the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security.

“It is the key to electric reliability, economic prosperity and public safety. Put simply, hydropower is the reason why the lights stay on in the Pacific Northwest. Breaching or chipping away at the Lower Snake River dams pulls a critical, dispatchable, carbon-free renewable resource out of the mix at a time when electric demand continues to grow.”

Matheson testified before the panel about a controversial legal settlement reached by the Biden administration, environmental groups, and tribal and state governments over the federal government’s operation of the Lower Snake River dams. Those dams supply hydropower to 55 co-ops in eight Western states served by the federal Bonneville Power Administration.

In a lawsuit filed in 2021, plaintiffs charged that the dams are threatening the survival of endangered salmon. The settlement supports breaching the dams and replacing them with other types of renewable energy.

Although it would take an act of Congress to actually breach the dams, the settlement agreement undermines their operation, Matheson said.

“While the dams are not physically breached by the agreement, the mandated spill and flow requirements chip away at the economic viability of the dams with the goal of making them uneconomical to operate,” he said.

It won’t just be electric power providers who will be hurt, Matheson added.

“It will adversely impact agricultural producers, the transportation sector and economically disadvantaged rural communities,” he said.

NRECA CEO Jim Matheson testifies about the importance of the Lower Snake River dams in providing hydropower to Northwest co-ops at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy, Climate and Grid Security. (Photo By: Denny Gainer/NRECA)

For decades, the hydropower provided by the Columbia River System has fueled economic growth in the region, Matheson said.

“The region’s hydropower is a major attraction for economic investment in the Northwest,” he said. “Companies locate their operations in the Northwest to take advantage of the reliable, affordable and carbon-free hydropower. Small family-owned businesses, electric vehicle manufacturers, agricultural producers and tech giants have all based operations in the Northwest because of hydropower.”

Although power generation within the BPA system includes wind, solar and biomass, those sources are dwarfed by hydropower, which makes up nearly 80% of capacity, Matheson said.

The settlement envisions replacing Lower Snake River dam hydropower with other renewables. Matheson raised concerns with this, noting that “hydropower is not interchangeable with wind or solar. Hydropower is a dispatchable resource, meaning it can be adjusted to meet demand and is ever-ready as a source of baseload power. Wind and solar, on the other hand, are unpredictable.”

Matheson also denounced the exclusion of co-ops and other electric utilities in the settlement talks.

“No one from the electric consumer sector was included in the final closed-door negotiations that led to this settlement,” he said. “The people that keep the lights on were purposefully kept in the dark…This settlement process sets a dangerous precedent of exclusion.”

Erin Kelly is a staff writer for NRECA.