A column by Don C. Brunell, president, Association of
When Grand Coulee Dam was completed in 1942, it was called the
Eighth Wonder of the Modern World. With its 151 mile-long reservoir
and ability to produce 6,809 megawatts of electricity, no one could
imagine a bigger or more powerful dam — and no one realized the
scope of economic development that low-cost, reliable hydropower
Actually someone did. China.
This year, China completed its gargantuan Three Gorges
hydroelectric project with triple the power generation of Grand
Coulee. The controversial project is the largest dam in the world.
The Chinese government defends it and other proposed hydro projects
as critical to curbing disastrous flooding on the Yangtze River and
generating electricity needed to power China’s economic growth.
New mega dams are also planned on the Amazon and Mekong rivers.
What’s behind this renaissance of hydropower?
First, hydropower produces no greenhouse gases and generates
large amounts of electricity in one spot. The electricity produced
by the Three Gorges Dam is equivalent to the output of 15 nuclear
reactors. The comparison to wind and solar power is even more
striking. It takes thousands of acres of wind turbines and solar
panels to produce an equivalent stable supply of electricity and
that generation occurs only when the wind blows or the sun
Second, electricity powers manufacturing which, in turn, creates
economic growth and family-wage jobs. Like wind and solar, it is
clean energy but it is more reliable because water is stored behind
the dams, available for use on demand.
In Peru, former President Alan Garcia believes his country can
increase its electricity generation eight-fold by harnessing the
tributaries to the Amazon River. In turn, Peru would use the power
to expand its manufacturing and agriculture base and export a big
chunk of that electricity to neighboring Brazil and Chile.
Peru is one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, averaging
6 percent GDP growth since the turn of the century. Garcia’s plan
is to use energy, particularly electricity, to diversify its
economy, spur investments in manufacturing, create jobs and
Halfway across the world, the Laotian government is proposing a
network of 11 dams on the lower Mekong River, similar to our
Columbia and Snake River hydro network. China already has dams
along the upper Mekong and is building more.
Laos’ centerpiece is the mammoth and controversial 1,260
megawatt Xayaburi dam on the lower reaches of the Mekong River.
Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam say the dam violates a 1995 treaty
for shared use and management of the Mekong River Basin. Still,
Laos is pushing ahead because of the dam’s potential to spur
We often overlook the importance of hydropower in our state.
Roughly three-quarters of our electricity comes from our dams.
Low-cost, reliable hydropower is the foundation of our state’s
manufacturing sector, and it heats and lights schools, hospitals,
nursing homes, office buildings and homes throughout the state. In
fact, our hydropower advantage offsets other higher costs in
Even so, some people think we should remove the dams,
particularly the four dams on the lower Snake River. But those dams
are integral to our river transportation system, and they produce
the electricity that pumps irrigation water into Eastern Washington
vineyards, orchards and fields. Removing them will cripple our
economy and kill jobs.
Unlike the controversial Xayaburi and Three Gorges dams, our
Columbia and Snake River network did not cover millions of acres of
farmlands and forest, nor did they displace millions of people.
Over the years, we have learned to balance fisheries, flood
control, power production, transportation and irrigation needs.
We should realize that we have what the rest of the world is
seeking: a reliable source of clean, affordable, renewable