Reflecting on the 1980 Northwest Power Act: Past accomplishments and future challenges

From left: Council Members KC Golden, Jeff Allen, Les Purce, former Gov. Dan Evans, Council Members Mike Milburn, Doug Grob, Ginny Burdick, Ed Schriever, and Executive Director Bill Edmonds.

A panel of long-time regional leaders on energy and fish and wildlife issues shared their thoughts about the significance of the Northwest Power Act and the Council at its April meeting. Looking ahead, they outlined the challenges they see as the Council prepares to amend its fish and wildlife program and develop its next power plan. The April meeting also included a reception at the Evergreen State College honoring Governor Dan Evans, the Council’s first chair from 1981-83 (video).

Panelists included Randy Hardy, former administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration and currently head of Randy Hardy Associates, LLC; Nancy Hirsch, policy director for the Northwest Energy Coalition; and Rob Lothrop, policy development and litigation support for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

History leading to the passage of the Act and the role of Dan Evans as first Chair

The Council was authorized by Congress in 1980 when it passed the Northwest Power Act, giving the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington a greater voice in how the region plans its energy future and manages natural resources. After serving three terms as governor of Washington from 1965-77, Evans served as the first chair of the Council from 1981-83, until he was appointed to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1983-89. To meet growing demand in the Northwest and per the Power Act, Evans and the first Council prioritized low-cost energy efficiency and the development of renewable energy. As a result, since 1980, the region has saved 7,678 average megawatts through energy efficiency – enough electricity to meet the demand of nearly seven cities the size of Seattle. Over more than four decades, this has helped achieve billions of dollars in avoided energy costs to the region. Evans’ tenure on the Council also helped lay the groundwork for later actions that improved fish survival at dams, protected more than 300,000 acres of habitat for fish and wildlife through purchase or conservation easement, and protected 44,000 miles of undammed Northwest rivers and streams. The scope and investment in the Columbia River Basin Fish and Wildlife Program make it one of the largest mitigation efforts in the world.

The first members of the Council, including Chair Dan Evans (seated, second from left).

The Power Act passed during the collapse of the Washington Public Power Supply System. WPPSS financed construction of five nuclear plants but only one was built, which ultimately resulted in the largest municipal bond default in U.S. history. Decision-making processes were largely shrouded in secrecy and occurred without public engagement. During the early 1980s, Evans and his fellow members ensured the processes for creating the Council’s first power plan and fish and wildlife program were open to the public and subject to robust engagement and debate. To create these plans and programs, they toured the four-state region and hosted numerous forums and town halls. The Power Act also required formal consultation with tribes and other stakeholders for the first time since the federal hydropower system began to be developed in the 1930s. The Fish and Wildlife program is based on recommendations from state and federal agencies, tribes, and others.

Summary of panel (video)

Rob Lothrop

Lothrop noted that he attended the first Council meeting on April 28, 1981, and he highlighted section 900 in the first fish and wildlife program that is dedicated to the Yakima Basin. He noted Governor Evans, the Council’s first chair, for his commitment to the basin, highlighting the funding to retrofit fish screens and ladders made possible through the Council’s program. “It took about a year to get the Bureau of Reclamation to accept Bonneville funding of $2 to $3 million for this project, and I credit Governor and then Senator Evans for his persistence and dedication not just to the program, but to the Yakima Basin.”

Randy Hardy

Hardy remarked that one of the biggest accomplishment of the first power plan was the independence and credibility Governor Evans and his seven fellow members established.

He also credited the Council for its accomplishments in energy efficiency, load forecasting, and a strong and structured fish and wildlife program, while flagging potential challenges ahead in load growth, the impact of data centers, and the need for an increase in transmission and storage capacity.

Nancy Hirsch

The Council facilitated the regional review in the mid-90s where stakeholders could collaborate on how to handle the deregulation of the electricity industry. It was an introduction to how we can work together, even though we don’t share the same views.

Echoing Hardy, Hirsch noted the anxiety about reliability and resource adequacy. However, she said the cost of climate change is already here. “Yes, there is a cost to this transition, but the cost of drought, the cost of extreme weather events, the cost to agriculture, to fish, to communities from wildfire is already staggering and weighing down our economy.”

For accomplishments, Hirsch highlighted the Council’s vision on energy efficiency as “remarkable”, allowing the region to save over $2 billion from saving energy. Over 7,000 megawatts of savings have been of huge value to the region, both economically and environmentally, and the region should continue to make it a priority. Demand response is also an important way to address load growth, and Hirsh said every building and every electric vehicle should be wired to talk to the grid to create more flexibility in managing power demand. Hirsch also flagged transmission as a potential challenge and added the need to keep improving energy efficiency and demand response.


Hardy noted that, in his opinion, load growth may outpace our ability to implement demand response. He discussed the time it takes to develop markets and the institutional and political barriers to overcome.

Lothrop noted the role of the tribes in transmission discussions given the significant lines sited on tribal land. He also referred to an Oregon Department of Energy brief as instructive for the Council in using a fish-first perspective when making decisions. “Energy efficiency is fish-friendly; solar gives us the...temptation to use the hydrosystem for peaking,” in ways that could impact fish.

Compared to the past, noted Hardy, we’re facing multiple challenges: transmission availability, data center load growth, decarbonization, and clean energy mandates. “Today, we need all the parties involved to solve these problems.”

“I think the full Council shares a commitment to resource adequacy, reliability, affordability, and environmental stewardship,” said Hirsch.

“Working together will be the biggest challenge to see that and to map out a path where those values are front and center and core to your deliberations on the plan. It’s about those core values and less about the noise of the politics that will enable this Council to address the issues we talked about today. I’m optimistic and hopeful that you can do that…We need the Council working together because we have a lot of challenges and it’s a critical role.” said Hirsch.