Archive for the ‘Hydroelectric Dams’ Category

It Flows Downhill, and the Supremes Approve

Photo by pixabay. Some rights reserved.

 On January 8th, the United States Supreme Court unanimously held that water flowing from an “improved portion” of a waterway into an “unimproved portion” of the same waterway is not a “discharge of a pollutant” under the Clean Water Act. The case,  Los Angeles County Flood Control District v. Natural Resources Defense Council, affects dams as well as sewer and storm systems. This reverses a previous decision by the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals that caused some concern among hydropower stakeholders. The opinion was delivered by Justice Ginsburg.

Bonneville and a Battery-Powered Future

Bonneville Dam, on the Columbia River 40 miles east of Portland, OR. Photo by Ann Larie Valentine, some rights reserved.

We’ve written previously about the dispute between the Bonneville Power Administration and owners of wind facilities in the Pacific Northwest. The BPA, when storms create a simultaneous surplus of wind and rain and threaten to overwhelm the grid, has to give away free power. Sometimes, it has had to resort to essentially unplugging wind turbines connected to the grid because the hydroelectric equivalent, routing excess water around the dams, could harm salmon by creating excess bubbles. (You can read more about the ongoing controversy in this alert from Stoel Rives).

At the recent National Electricity Forum, Energy Department Secretary Steven Chu addressed the issue of unpredictable surges and deficits in power generation, which is likely to emerge more widely as installations of renewable energy projects expand. One of Chu’s suggestions was to use batteries, storing extra energy generated during times of peak production for use at times of low production. Currently, a battery needed to store one kilowatt hour, the amount electricity needed to run a window air-conditioner for an hour, costs $350. Compared to the $0.11 that amount of energy costs, paying  for such a battery may seem ridiculous.

So what to do about it? The Obama Energy Department as part of its clean energy research strategy has been creating “hubs” to promote advanced research on areas of particular interest since 2010, aiming to bring together teams of scientists and engineers across disciplines to rapidly accelerate scientific discoveries and speed the transition between laboratory and commercial deployment.

On Wednesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced plans to launch an Energy Innovation Hub, the fourth such hub, for research on batteries and energy storage with an investment of up to $120 million over five years. It will focus on electrochemical energy storage for transportation and the electric grid, including utility-scale storage, hoping to improve reliability and efficiency of the electrical grid, to better integrate clean technologies in our electrical systems, and for use in electric vehicles.

Vermont’s Plan for 90% Renewable Energy

Photo by Andrew Curtis. Some rights reserved.

While Irene proved little more than a light rain shower where I waited it out in New Hampshire, Tropical Storm Irene launched a surprise assault across the Connecticut River in Vermont. The resulting damage shocked the state and people across the country, but Vermonters now see the potential to rebuild infrastructure in a smarter way. The state government is hoping to align local, regional, and state energy policies to support “resilient growth,” foster economic stability, and safeguard the environment.  New Governor Peter Shumlin led the effort to develop a Comprehensive Energy Plan, Vermont’s first in more than a decade, setting their sights on obtaining 90% of their total energy from renewable sources by 2050.

Vermonters have a history of thinking progressively about their energy. In 2011, they got 23% of their energy from renewable sources, compared to 14% across the U.S. (though Knowledge Mosaic’s home state of Washington’s number stands close to 80%).  Even before Irene, the state had set a goal of reducing energy usage in state government by 5%. And while proud of their efforts to increase efficiency and keep demand for electricity down, the CEP goes further.

Identifying oil and fossil fuels, which remain the backbone of heating and transportation, as particular areas of focus, the CEP emphasizes four drivers of progress: finance and funding, innovation, outreach and education, and regulatory policy and structures. Their goal is to consider all four areas in every energy policy.

A first priority of the plan is to promote efficiency and make progress metrics, while continuing to improve the structure for allocation and pricing of energy. It supports reducing household heating cost through building codes and biofuels, and recommends a plan to move transportation infrastructure towards supporting electric vehicles.

It is a bold vision. But even the state’s own overview of the program recognizes that they are a “state leading by example.” Vermont’s economy is the smallest in the U.S. But they hope to make progress they could not consider if not facing significant infrastructure repairs across the state, and maybe have an outsized impact on other states’ future decisions.

Judge Dismisses Obama Hydroelectric Plan as Too Vague

Photo by Slideshow Bruce. Some rights reserved.

Judge James Redden of the Federal District Court in Portland issued a final ruling on an Obama Administration plan to make hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers in the Pacific Northwest safer for spawning salmon. Redden’s decision came on the basis that the plan, known as the biological option, was too vague in its various proposals to make the salmon’s natural habitat “safer,” and that it violated certain portions of the Endangered Species Act.

Redden chided the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Obama administration for not extending their promises of safer dams beyond 2013, or even that “the expected habitat improvements – let alone the expected survival increases – are likely to materialize,” and recommended that they voluntarily remove and rework their supposed improvements on a Bush-backed plan from 2005 that salmon-supporters and Redden alike believe too closely mirrors Obama’s current plan. In fact, salmon advocates have been outspoken on the issue since the plan’s genesis in 2009 – you can read through archived pleas from the Save Our Wild Salmon organization here.

The Obama administration and the NOAA will now take three months to try and improve and specify certain aspects of the plan. Redden has made two similar rulings in the last 15 years, finding ways to balance the interests of the hydroelectric industry and the environmental costs in federal rules. You can read through a handy conversation between Beth Hyams and Rob Manning from OPB News on what comes next for the plan here.

Trip Van Noppen, President of Earthjustice, the public interest law firm representing fishing and conservation groups in the case, offered this simple solution after the ruling yesterday as one concrete change that would benefit salmon:

“Taking out the four dams that strangle the lower Snake River would bring millions of dollars from restored salmon runs to communities from coastal California to Alaska and inland to Idaho. Let’s reject the path that continues wasting money on failed salmon technical fixes and embrace a solution that could set an example for the rest of the nation.”

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