Monday, October 02, 2023
When the Pacific Northwest ran out of rivers
During my childhood, it was said that most of Washington's electricity came from hydroelectric dams. As I got older, population and economic growth, in the Pacific Northwest, outgrew the rivers. We basically ran out of good sites to build dams; the mighty Columbia River; turned to a series of slackwater lakes.
In the 1980s, nuclear power was seen as a way to keep up with the growth, but nuclear was pretty much put out of business by less expensive natural gas. Much of the power, in the northwest, comes from natural gas fired power plants today along with the hydro power. We even have a natural gas power plant on the Bellingham waterfront.
In the 1970s, several nuclear plants were planned by an organization called "Washington Public Power Supply System." The acronym was WPPS. By coincidence WPPSS sounds like Woops.
The cost of nuclear, plus worries about it's safety after 3 Mile Island incident, in Pennsylvania, led to the mothballing of all the WPPSS projects, except for one. WPPSS went bankrupt, which became the second largest municipal bond default in US history.
I think a big part of the problem was competition with natural gas fired power plants which were easier to construct. Gas turned out to be an abundant and inexpensive source of energy.
The one nuclear plant that was finished and is producing quite a bit of the northwest's power, today, was called WPPSS #2. It's on the Hanford Reservation and has since been renamed the Columbia River Generating Station. I passed that facility on my recent bicycle trip just a few weeks ago.
I think nuclear may make a comeback as smaller, less expensive reactors become available.
Back during my grade school years, dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers were controversial. Even back then, talk of ecological problems and salmon habitat were in the news.
My dad was pretty much a New Deal liberal. He was a fan of the dams, for the most part. Many of the dams were New Deal projects.
I remember some debates, in our family, about the virtues and problems associated with dams. We would take Sunday drives down to the Snake River, near Pullman, where dad would follow the construction of two nearby dams.
One of my childhood memories, from growing up in Washington State, was the song "Roll on Columbia." "Your power is turning our darkness to dawn."