For decades, Washington has reaped the benefits of forward-thinking leaders who constructed a series of hydroelectric dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers. The low-cost, carbon-free renewable electricity generated by the dams supported thousands of jobs, and the irrigation made possible by the dams turned Eastern Washington’s soil into fertile farmland.
Now, the dams are under attack at a time when they’re more needed than ever. Amid calls to breach the four lower Snake River dams, a recent review by Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Patty Murray found it would cost up to $31 billion to replace the various economic benefits they provide.
At the same time, natural gas is also coming under increasing attack from some lawmakers and from the governor who want to ban it, a step that would raise the cost of energy and reduce grid reliability.
All of this means that energy is quickly becoming one of the most important issues for Washington’s future. Where will our power come from in the coming decades, and how much will it cost?
To begin exploring these and other energy-related questions, the Association of Washington Business is hosting an Energy Summit Nov. 8-9 in the Tri-Cities. We’ll use the summit to convene people from diverse industries to talk about ways that Washington can keep pace with energy demand while continuing to lead the country in preserving and maintaining our natural environment.
Our challenge is to retain the existing energy resources that have given Washington a competitive advantage for decades, while simultaneously building, innovating, and inventing the energy future.
I’m confident Washingtonians can meet the challenge, just as our predecessors — leaders like Gov. Albert D. Rosellini and U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson — met the challenges before them when they advocated for construction of the dams. Speaking to a crowd in Pasco 65 years ago, Rosellini said the dams meant prosperity, jobs, and food on the table. He couldn’t have been more correct.
Today, we know that demand for energy is only going to increase. Washington lawmakers want to double the state’s manufacturing sector in 10 years. That includes doubling the number of women- and minority-owned manufacturing companies. It’s an ambitious goal that will be hard to achieve under the best of circumstances, and impossible to achieve without more power, not less.
And it’s not just the state’s goal of doubling manufacturing that will increase the need for energy. Washington is growing in population and is expected to add 1 million new residents by 2030, and 2 million by 2040.
All of those new people will need power for their homes, and many of them will also be plugging in all their devices and their cars to the power grid as the world transitions to electric vehicles.
Some of that power will come from renewable sources like solar and wind, but some will also need to continue coming from natural gas, which currently provides 15 percent of our state’s electricity and provides critical baseload power that keeps the lights on during the coldest and hottest days of the year.
A portion of the state’s future energy needs will also need to come from renewable hydropower, a power source that remains widely popular with the general public despite the calls for dam breaching. In a recent poll, 85 percent of Washington voters said they support the use of dams to generate electricity and the vast majority of them — nearly 70 percent — oppose breaching the dams on the lower Snake River.
They understand the value the dams provide for our region, just as our predecessors understood the value.
“Over 35 years ago, we planned for the future,” Magnuson said in 1975.
It’s our turn now.
Kris Johnson is president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s chamber of commerce and manufacturers association.