By Ken Miller

Swan Falls, Idaho

Swan Falls Dam near Murphy in western Idaho

Most Idahoans, especially customers of Idaho Power, know that nearly half of the electricity used in the state is generated by hydropower dams on our rivers, streams, and even canals, and most of the rest comes from out-of-state coal plants. Those coal plants emit staggering amounts of greenhouse gases, and those emissions are undeniably changing our climate, including the rain and snow that powers electricity-generating dams. Here’s the rub: Climate change is altering precipitation patterns in Idaho, and that means changes to steam flow and when we can generate hydropower for electricity. The less power we get from our dams, the more power we need from those dirty coal plants. And that in turn further disrupts river and stream flows that provide all that power. You can see the problem. As we’ll see below, our reliance on climate-changing coal plants means less carbon-free hydropower, which means more coal. The biggest way to end this cycle is to burn less coal – and that’s the keystone in our clean energy program.

In October Idaho Power invited members of its Integrated Resource Plan Advisory Council and other stakeholders to join company representatives on a tour of Idaho Power’s historic Swan Falls Power Project.

The Snake River’s First Power Plant: Swan Falls

Built in 1901, Swan Falls Dam was the first power plant on the Snake River. It was constructed to provide electricity to the mines in nearby Silver City and was acquired by the newly incorporated Idaho Power in 1916. It is by no means the company’s largest hydropower project – that would be the massive three-dam Hells Canyon Complex on the Idaho-Oregon border – but it is emblematic of Idaho Power’s long history in using moving water to generate electricity. What visitors to Swan Falls see today, aside from the older, retired, 10-megawatt power plant that cost $250,000 to build and that now serves as a visitor center, is a relatively new, two-turbine powerhouse built in 1994 and capable of generating 27 megawatts. Depending on the season and location, one megawatt can power about 750 homes – fewer during periods of very hot or cold weather when electricity demand increases.

During the Swan Falls tour, we heard about Idaho Power’s Avian Protection Program that, among other things, designs transmission lines and other infrastructure to minimize impacts to birds in the Snake River Canyon and elsewhere. And we got a refresher course on the long, complicated history of Snake River water management. And on the frictions among myriad water users in times of low flows or even drought. It quickly became clear that a combination of global climate change, increasing demands for Snake River water, and important environmental regulations make managing this complex hydropower system a monumental challenge.

Even though the Snake and Columbia River dams produce power that is essentially carbon-free, it comes with significant biological and environmental consequences. Historically, salmon were able to migrate up the Snake River clear to Shoshone Falls near Twin Falls, where towering cataracts halted further passage upriver. But when the Hells Canyon complex was built in the 1950s, proposals to compensate for the blocked fish passage with attempts to help fish pass around the three dams were abandoned. Today, Hells Canyon is the end of the road for those historic salmon migrations. Besides the obvious impacts to fish, the dams and their reservoirs, while providing flood control in many cases, also strip the river of its natural flow, accumulate sediment, and alter temperatures. It is inconceivable that additional large dams and impoundments would be built on Idaho rivers going forward, and for good reason. In addition, we now know that Columbia River dams expose migrating fish to predators such as sea lions, and the reservoirs behind them disrupt the timing of fish migration to the sea and back to Idaho’s rivers and streams.

Most Idaho Power customers are aware that nearly half the electricity they consume comes from Idaho Power’s 17 hydroelectric power plants on the Snake River and its tributaries, from the American Falls Dam down to the Hells Canyon complex. Most of the rest of our electricity is imported from out-of-state coal-fired power plants, which the Snake River Alliance is working to phase out over time and replace with readily available and affordable cleaner energy alternatives such as energy efficiency and renewable energy generation. Only by reducing and eventually eliminating our reliance on polluting coal plants can Idaho do its share to reduce climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions.

Burning Dirty Coal is Already Changing Our Hydropower Patterns

Burning coal, as we do today in prodigious amounts, fuels global climate change, which disrupts utility hydropower operations by altering the timing and amounts of precipitation. To make up for diminished hydro production, utilities turn more heavily to their fossil fuel generation resources, which in turn (you guessed it!) emit more greenhouse gases, which in turn further impact hydro production. It’s a cycle that must be stopped for the sake of our planet and our environment.

It was during our day-long visit to Swan Falls Dam in the heart of the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area that we realized both how dependent we as Idaho Power customers are on water-generated electricity and, just as important, how vulnerable that once-reliable energy resource is to the impacts of global climate change. More than ever, a power resource most of us have taken for granted is only as dependable as the amount and timing of precipitation in our river basins. From power production to agriculture and, for that matter, Idaho’s entire economy, we’re already feeling climate change “signals.” And Idaho Power is the first to admit that the impacts are real and that they affect the company’s bread-and-butter power resource:

Idaho Power derives a significant portion of its power supply from its hydroelectric facilities. . . . Because of Idaho Power’s heavy reliance on hydroelectric generation, snowpack, the timing of run-off, drought conditions, and the availability of water in the Snake River basin can significantly affect its operations. The combination of declining Snake River base flows, over-appropriation of water, and periods of drought have led to water rights disputes and proceedings among surface water and ground water irrigators and the State of Idaho. Recharging the Eastern Snake Plain aquifer by diverting surface water to porous locations and permitting it to sink into the aquifer is one proposed solution to the over-appropriation dispute. Diversions from the Snake River for aquifer recharge or the loss of water rights may further reduce Snake River flows available for hydroelectric generation.  When hydroelectric generation is reduced, Idaho Power must increase its use of more expensive thermal generating resources and purchased power; therefore, costs increase and opportunities for off-system sales are reduced, reducing earnings.

Idaho Power’s 2013 Annual Report (May 2014) 

Climate Change + Changing Weather Patterns = Erratic Hydro Generation

Stakeholders participating in Idaho Power’s every-other-year “integrated resource planning” process learned recently that from 1980 to this year, water flows at the Brownlee hydropower complex varied significantly, ranging from a high of 13 million acre-feet in 1984 to a low of less than 2 million acre-feet in the early 1990s. The average annual flows are between 8 million and 9 million acre-feet.  Furthermore, Idaho Power’s periods of highest electricity demand – its “peak” demands – are typically in the hottest summer periods. That’s an additional strain, since our hydro-fueling precipitation comes earlier and earlier in the year when demand is lower than during those peak periods. In short, utility planners must adjust to a new reality in which hydropower is most available as runoff during times we need it least, while demands for water grow during times when we need the electricity the most. More recently, the over-abundance of hydropower in the spring has led to bizarre circumstances, such as hydro-heavy utilities being unable to find a buyer for the excess electricity, sometimes having to pay other utilities to take the electricity off their hands or curtailing generation from generating resources such as wind turbines. Idaho Power’s 2013 Annual Report summed up the dilemma:

The amount of hydroelectric power generated depends on several factors – the amount of snow pack in the mountains upstream of Idaho Power’s hydroelectric facilities, reservoir storage, springtime snow pack run-off, river base flows, spring flows, rainfall, the amount and timing of water leases, and other weather and stream flow considerations. Generation at the plants located on the Snake River also depends on the state water rights held by Idaho Power and the long-term sustainability of the Snake River, tributary spring flows, and the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer that is connected to the Snake River.

So you can see a big part of the problem. Not only is the timing and amount of precipitation that directly impacts the utility’s hydropower operations shifting, but the Snake River is over-allocated among thousands of water rights. Often, there is simply not enough water in the river system to meet the demands of all users, from the power company to agriculture interests, fish-farmers, and others.

Consider that in 2011, hydroelectric plants provided 69 percent of Idaho Power’s total generation. In 2012, another good hydropower year, it was 57 percent. But in 2013 it was 42 percent. Conversely, coal accounted for 30 percent of the generation in 2011 and 38 percent in 2012. But in 2013, it was up to 47 percent of Idaho Power’s generation, overshadowing hydropower’s contribution. And when coal power overtakes hydropower, Idaho Power is responsible for increasing greenhouse gas emissions, not the reduced emissions it has promised.

While it remains true that hydropower is the workhorse of Idaho Power’s electricity generation fleet, its share of our energy “portfolio” will continue to shrink in relative terms as more customers and more demand create new energy needs while the era of new dam construction is all but over. At the same time, the Snake River dams, while they continue to be in good condition, are not getting any younger. Turbines need maintenance or replacement altogether. Power production from the dams, with few exceptions, is not growing.

Idaho Rivers Struggle to Meet Growing Demands, Including for Hydropower

Idaho’s water policy, like much of the West’s, is “first in time, first in right,” meaning that water rights holders like Idaho Power with some older, senior water rights have stronger claims to Snake River water than more junior rights holders. That’s why when things are really tight, it’s possible to see a “water call” that restricts the rights of those junior rights holders so the senior rights holders like Idaho Power (and some fish farms) continue to have access to the water. Earlier this year, after about three decades of hearings and negotiations, the last of more than 158,000 Snake River Basin water rights claims was adjudicated, bringing to a close the most complex water adjudication process in U.S. history.

And while the hydropower projects are essentially paid for, there is also the matter of having to relicense the dams with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  That can be a staggeringly complex and expensive undertaking: Idaho Power’s license for its largest generating resource, the three-dam Hells Canyon complex (Brownlee, Oxbow, and Hells Canyon), expired in 2005, and it has been operating on annual extensions. It is expected that when the complex is eventually relicensed, it will have cost Idaho Power’s customers hundreds of millions of dollars and likely result in reduced output as dam operators comply with tighter fish and wildlife mitigation requirements as well as water quality and temperature obligations.

Far upstream in south-central Idaho, another hydropower curiosity is repeating itself. The flows of the Snake River beyond Milner Dam between Twin Falls and Burley actually drop to zero as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation finishes water releases to help migrating salmon and steelhead reach the Columbia River and the Pacific. Not far downstream from Milner, the spectacular Shoshone Falls, another Idaho Power hydropower plant, sees flows reduced to a trickle due to diversions for agriculture. The Snake River can no longer keep up with our insatiable demands for water, the most valuable commodity in Idaho and the West.

So as we continue to bump up against demands on Snake River water exceeding supplies, what does a company like Idaho Power do? For one thing, it can lease water rights from other entities such as tribes. For another, it is strongly committed to its “cloud seeding” program, which it says squeezes more water from passing clouds that then flows into the river basins feeding into the Snake River system.

Those are short-term fixes, however. Real solutions will require a renewed commitment to energy-saving efficiency and conservation programs that will offset increases in electricity demand. Idaho Power, like all utilities, must redouble efforts to incorporate more renewable energy onto its system to ease the pressure on the Snake River.

The situation is far from hopeless, but it is deadly serious. Idahoans are a determined and inventive bunch. Now is the time to redouble our efforts to protect not just the Snake River, but also our planet’s climate.