Northwest Power Act

On December 5, 1980, Congress passed the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act, which authorized the four states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington to form the Northwest Power and Conservation Council (Council). President Jimmy Carter signed the bill into law in one of his last acts as President.

The Northwest Power Act directs the Council to prepare a plan to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin that have been affected by the construction and operation of hydroelectric dams while also assuring the Pacific Northwest an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable electric power supply. Between 1976 and 1980, the Act evolved in response to three crises in the Pacific Northwest.

The first resulted from the culmination of the hydropower system and, as a result, the certainty that no more large dams would be built. The last mainstem dams of the 31-dam Federal Columbia River Power System, Lower Granite on the Snake, and Libby on the Kootenai in Montana, were completed in 1975. It was widely perceived that the Northwest soon would run out of electricity unless new power plants were built to augment the hydropower supply. Because power from new plants would be more expensive than the federal hydropower, an allocation dispute developed over access to the low-cost federal hydropower. At one point, state of Oregon officials considered declaring the entire state a public utility district — the Domestic and Rural Power Authority of Oregon — in order to qualify all of the state’s ratepayers as preference customers of the Bonneville Power Administration, which sold the output of the federal dams. In the 1970s, regional energy officials and politicians sought a legislative fix to the energy crisis, a means of dividing the federal power supply pie.

The second crisis was one of electricity demand forecasting. The fear of shortage was real, and the scramble for access to Bonneville’s power was real, but the energy crisis was not; the problem was with inaccurate energy forecasting by the region’s electric utilities and Bonneville. But that would not be evident until the 1980s, when the predicted shortage would fail to materialize. In fact, the Northwest would experience an electricity surplus in the early 1980s. But through the 1960s and ‘70s, electric utilities and Bonneville were predicting future shortages. As it became evident in the late 1970s that nuclear power plants then under construction by the Washington Public Power Supply System might not be needed in the early 1980s as planned, public distrust grew. Several studies showed that energy efficiency could forestall the need for new power plants and do so at a cost equal to or lower than building new plants. It was time to let someone else — a neutral agency like the Council, for example — prepare the region’s long-range energy demand forecasts.

The third crisis was the decline of salmon runs in the Snake River. While hydropower was a reason for the decline — in fact, the major reason — it was not the only reason. Yet the dams were perceived as the primary cause of the decline, which probably had as much to do with poor environmental conditions, such as drought in the mid-1970s and changes in the ocean environment that affect salmon survival, as any other impact. Environmental groups filed petitions to protect the fish under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1979, and these were put on hold when Congress included fish and wildlife mitigation in the Northwest Power Act. The petitions eventually were filed, anyway, and the fish later were listed.

Thus, the Northwest Power Act evolved from a power-allocation dispute, inaccurate energy demand forecasts, public distrust of utilities and Bonneville, public interest in energy efficiency, and a desire to address the root cause of the decline of Columbia River Basin salmon, particularly those that spawned in the Snake River Basin. In response to the growing public distrust of long-range energy forecasting, the Act directed the Council to produce 20-year demand forecasts as part of its power planning responsibilities. In response to public concern that Bonneville should not be allowed to buy the output of new power plants without some form of oversight, the Act directed the Council to oversee any future acquisitions. In response to studies in the late 1970s that showed the region could meet much of its future energy needs through energy efficiency at a lower cost than through nuclear power, the favored new generating technology at the time, the Act directed Bonneville to acquire all cost-effective conservation before buying the output of any new power plants in the future. In fact, the Act established priorities for future resource acquisitions by Bonneville, and traditional thermal resources — coal and nuclear — are at the bottom of the list. Finally, in response to the salmon crisis, and to the impacts of hydropower on other fish and wildlife as well, the Act directed the Council to prepare a program, funded by Bonneville, to protect, mitigate and enhance fish and wildlife of the Columbia River Basin, and related spawning grounds and habitat, that have been affected by hydropower. At the same time, the Act directs the Council to prepare a power plan that assures the region an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply.

The Northwest Power Act is a unique piece of legislation, one that responded to crises in a unique part of the country, balancing the public interest in mitigating the impacts of hydropower on fish and wildlife against the public interest in an affordable, reliable electricity supply.

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