Quantifying Development Potential in the Pacific Northwest

According to a recently completed scoping study, the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. holds significant hydro development potential.

By Jan Lee

Hydroelectric development potential in the Pacific Northwest from 2015 to 2035 is estimated to be 3,200 MW, or 23 million MWh. Costs for this development range from an average of $3,518 per kW to $8,464 per kW. These are the results of a www.nwhydro.org/docs/Hydropower_Report.pdf Regional Hydropower Potential Scoping Study recently completed by the Northwest Hydroelectric Association.

NWHA received a contract from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council1 in August 2014 to complete this study. NWPCC sought to understand if the substantial new hydropower potential identified in several recent studies could be used to determine a reasonable, realistic estimate of regional hydropower potential capacity and generation available for the council’s Seventh Power Plan. The intent of this report was to provide a preliminary analysis of the data included in those studies and to address whether the data is of sufficient quality to determine an identified hydropower potential for the region.

The study was completed, and results were available in November 2014.2 Below are more details about the results.

Identifying the need for a study

Why the Pacific Northwest? A study performed by the U.S. Department of Energy in April 2014 indicated that 32% of all future hydropower in the U.S. could be available from this region, 25,226 MW of capacity.

In total, 24 studies developed from 2003 through 2014 were reviewed, broken into five categories:

  • Projects at existing non-powered dams;
  • Conduit and kinetic projects within canals, pipelines or other manmade conveyances;
  • Pumped storage/energy storage projects;
  • Tidal and wave energy projects; and
  • General assessments including a mix of projects.

Many of these studies did not take into account screens for environmental attributes that could provide conflict with fish and wildlife and resource habitats. Others did not consider protected land use areas such as state and national parks or watershed landscapes, nor state and federal scenic water programs. None of the studies addressed NWPCC’s “protected area” designations identified in its Fish and Wildlife program, designed to ensure that new hydroelectric development is carried out in a manner that protects the fish and wildlife resources of the Columbia River Basin and the Pacific Northwest and does not further obligate the region’s ratepayers for mitigation measures.

The amount of capacity the DOE report addresses is equal to 76% of the current hydro development now in place and would provide 118% of the existing generation output, NWHA says. The DOE study used methodology targeted at a higher reconnaissance level designed to calculate the potential from run-of-river projects.

The capacity identified in the NWHA study that may be developed over the next 20 years is substantially less. How do the future hydropower potential numbers break down?

  • Non-powered dams: 10 projects, 57.159 MW, 148,248 MWh
  • Conduit and hydrokinetic: 143 projects, 63.697 MW, 226,108 MWh
  • Pumped storage: Three projects, 2,640 MW, 33,084 MWh
  • Tidal and wave energy: Not enough information available to identify projects
  • General/multiple type assessments: 35 projects, 89.7 MW, 429,947 MWh
  • Upgrades to existing projects: 14 projects, 388 MW, 1,464,168 MWh

Projects developed at existing diversions have a less significant impact on the region’s rivers and streams and thus are not subject to NWPCC review under the protected areas designation. Relicensing of existing projects or the addition of generation to an existing hydro facility are also exempt. However, the protected areas designation would preclude 88% of the resource identified unless a new project could provide “exceptional benefits to fish and wildlife,” according to the council’s newly revised Fish and Wildlife Program strategy of 2014. The “protected area” status closes off substantial river miles in the Pacific Northwest from development of hydropower projects based on the council’s provisions to protect the fish and wildlife resource. The stream segments protected, the majority of river miles in the Northwest, were mapped in 1988.

The council concluded that:

  • Studies had identified fish and wildlife resources critically important to the region;
  • Mitigation techniques cannot assure that all adverse impacts of hydroelectric development on these fish and wildlife populations will be mitigated;
  • Even small hydroelectric projects may have unacceptable individual and cumulative impacts on these resources; and
  • Protecting these resources and habitats from hydroelectric development is consistent with an adequate, efficient, economical and reliable power supply. The council, relying on these studies, designated certain river reaches in the basin as “protected areas,” where the council believes hydroelectric development would have unacceptable risks of loss to fish and wildlife species of concern, their productive capacity or their habitat.

The identification of protected areas has not been updated since the 1988 mapping process. Given newer technology with the current ability to develop more environmentally-friendly projects, this should provide reconsideration of the mapped areas.

To firm up numbers addressed in all of the studies reviewed, as well as to identify projects in current planning not identified within the studies, NWHA provided two additional components to this report:

  • Review of existing Federal Energy Regulatory Commission applications (see Table 1 on page 46); and
  • Development of a survey provided to developers to assess pending projects.

In summary, the theoretical future hydropower potential for the Pacific Northwest appears to be about 3,200 MW of capacity with 23,000,000 MWh of electricity production, based on that methodology.

The study also provides cost estimates per kW for power generation for the project categories:

  • Non-powered dams: about $3,500
  • Conduit projects: $5,000 to ,500
  • Pumped storage: $1,800 to $3,500
  • Tidal and wave energy: No numbers available
  • General projects: Average $8,464

NWHA presented a report to the Council’s Generation Resource Advisory Committee, which is reviewing potential power in the Pacific Northwest for the Seventh Power Plan. This plan will cover 2015 to 2035.

The council’s last major assessment of hydropower potential in the region was undertaken as part of its Fourth Power Plan, released in 1998.

The complete study is available on the Internet at www.nwhydro.org/docs/Hydropower_Report.pdf.

To affirm the location of the hydro projects identified in the DOE study, NWHA provided a map of the proposed project reaches as an overlay to the map from NWPCC’s protected areas program stream reaches. The resulting overlay map compares how the two sets of stream reaches correlate in location to better ascertain potential project capacity numbers more reflective of the region’s regulatory process. The pie chart shown in the addendum to the study reflects that only 12% of the DOE potential could be developed under the NWPCC regulations.


1Northwest Power and Conservation Council was established pursuant to the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act of 1980 by the U.S. Congress to cover Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington (the Bonneville Power Administration service area). NWPCC serves as a comprehensive planning agency for energy policy and fish and wildlife policy in the Columbia River Basin to balance hydro development with fish and wildlife protection. The council has two representatives from each of the four states and has operated for 34 years.

2There were only 90 days available to complete the study, so there needs to be a much more in-depth analysis, as I believe it would define a higher threshold of potential. Only partial survey results were received in this period of time.

Jan Lee is executive director of the Northwest Hydroelectric Association.

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