On their last day of exploring WEF issues in the Columbia River Basin, the BRIDGES Crew went dam crazy. In the morning, the Cohort drove out to Rocky Reach Dam, just north of Wenatchee, WA. Along the way, the landscape shifted from lush Pacific Northwest forests, to sprawling orchards, to the arid lowlands of the Columbia river valley.
Jeff Osborn and Shaun Seaman of the Chelan County Public Utility District described the mission of the district’s hydropower projects, which includes Rocky Reach, Rock Island and Lake Chelan. They emphasized their focus on environmental stewardship and their commitment to adaptive management. The Chelan County PUD produces 2000 total megawatts (~1200 from Rocky Reach), with 250 of those megawatts going to Chelan County and the rest sold to regional utilities like Puget Sound Energy which serves Seattle. Rocky Reach was built with heavy subsidies from the federal government in the 50s and 60s and provides electricity at some of the cheapest rates in the world at 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour. That’s 1/20 of the rate in Germany.
The Cohort followed Osborn and Seaman into the dimly lit bowels of the dam’s power station where energy is transferred from the water to the grid. The 100-ton turbine shafts spin at 90 rpm, driven by the Columbia River at a force of over 15,000 cubic feet per second. Above the giant turbine shaft, the BRIDGES crew climbed up to the vast generator floor. Most of the dam might seem passive, but in the generator room, work is constantly underway to keep things running. At both ends of the floor, technicians worked on maintaining equipment, some zipping by bicycle back and forth across the great expanse.
Rock Reach was just the beginning. The Cohort continued down the road to the largest concrete structure in North America and one of the largest dams in the world, Grand Coulee Dam. A marvel of engineering, Grand Coulee turned dry steppe into productive farmland and sends power as far south as California. Yet, these advances came with a cost. Construction of the dam and the creation of the reservoir behind it (Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake) inundated Kettle Falls, an important Native American fishing ground. While Rocky Reach has significant infrastructure for fish passage, Grand Coulee lacks any kind. There’s no saving salmon here.
On top of the dam, the Cohort looked over the edge – a 380-foot drop where water rushed out of 8-foot spillways at 75 mph. There was a bathtub ring around Roosevelt Lake – the result of a water drawdown in anticipation of some heavy snowpack melt. Back in Montana, the gushing headwaters were rushing down to meet Grand Coulee.
Our tour guide Teresa began by driving us to various sites around the dam to get a full perspective of the project. Pumped storage provides a large reservoir for irrigation and allows backflow to produce electricity during peak grid demand. Dams can experience negative pricing when the grid is flush with electricity, a circumstance where they could have to pay other electrical producers to shut down so their electrical output has somewhere to go. At Grand Coulee, they can use this excess power to pump water up into their irrigation reservoir canal that acts as a battery. A pumped storage facility is currently in development in Montana.
In the dam’s heart the BRIDGES crew watched whirring turbines, traveled down spooky tunnels and bathed in the retro color schemes. Our intrepid and ebullient guide Teresa left no corridor untrodden, no dam detail unaddressed. At one point, the group encountered a mechanical engineer who explained how energy created at Coulee synchs up with the North America electrical grid.
Rocky Reach and Grand Coulee offered different scales of hydropower production. Dams are often celebrated as “carbon-free” or “renewable.” Hydropower – at first glance – seems like a welcome alternative to the heavy environmental costs of other forms of energy production, like coal or natural gas. But it still poses challenges to sustaining fish habitat and has left indelible effects on the landscape. The Cohort came away with some hope in hydropower, but also many questions on how to do it better, with even less impact on the Columbia River Basin.