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A hydropower renaissance | Don Brunell
When Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942, it was called the “Eighth Wonder of the Modern World.” With its 151 mile-long reservoir and ability to produce 6,809 megawatts of electricity, no one could imagine a bigger or more powerful dam — and no one realized the scope of economic development that low-cost, reliable hydropower would create.
Actually someone did. China.
This year, China completed its gargantuan Three Gorges hydroelectric project with triple the power generation of Grand Coulee. New mega dams are also planned on the Amazon and Mekong rivers. What’s behind this renaissance of hydropower?
First, hydropower produces no greenhouse gases and the electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam is equivalent to the output of 15 nuclear reactors. The comparison to wind and solar power is even more striking. It takes thousands of acres of wind turbines and solar panels to produce an equivalent stable supply of electricity and that generation occurs only when the wind blows or the sun shines.
Second, electricity powers manufacturing which, in turn, creates economic growth and family-wage jobs.
In Peru, President Alan Garcia believes his country can increase its electricity generation eight-fold by harnessing the tributaries to the Amazon River and use the power to expand its manufacturing and agriculture base and export a big chunk of that electricity to neighboring Brazil and Chile.
Halfway across the world, the Laotian government is proposing a network of 11 dams on the lower Mekong River, similar to our Columbia and Snake River hydro network.
Laos’ centerpiece is the mammoth and controversial 1,260 megawatt Xayaburi dam on the lower reaches of the Mekong River. Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam say the dam violates a 1995 treaty for shared use and management of the Mekong River Basin. Still, Laos is pushing ahead because of the dam’s potential to spur economic growth.
In our state, roughly three-quarters of our electricity comes from our dams and that low-cost, reliable hydropower is the foundation of our state’s manufacturing sector. It heats and lights schools, hospitals, nursing homes, office buildings and homes throughout the state. In fact, our hydropower advantage offsets other higher costs in Washington.
Even so, some people think we should remove the dams, particularly the four dams on the lower Snake River. But those dams are integral to our river transportation system, and they produce the electricity that pumps irrigation water into eastern Washington vineyards, orchards and fields. Removing them will cripple our economy and kill jobs.
We should realize that we have what the rest of the world is seeking: a reliable source of clean, affordable, renewable energy.
Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.