When it comes to dams most news is focused on the ones being torn down. But some say building new hydropower holds promise for the state’s clean energy future. In Snohomish County, a new mini-hydropower plant has just opened at Young’s Creek near Sultan.
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A crowd gathers in the powerhouse of the state’s first new hydropower plant in nearly 20 years. It’s time to flip the switch at a plant called Young’s Creek near Sultan. The 7.5 megawatt plant will generate power for some 2,000 homes. Kim Moore with Snohomish Public Utility District points to a valve on a 10- by 5-foot turbine and tells the crowd to prepare for a very loud sound. “It will start turning the shaft so once you hear the water come through you can watch the shaft. The first time it comes through slowly and then faster and faster."
Getting up to speed with renewable resources that leave a small footprint is the endgame here. In addition to hydropower, the Snohomish PUD is focused on conservation and energy efficiency measures like solar panels. They’re exploring tidal power. Dave Aldrich is president of Snohomish PUD’s Board. “We also have some mountains and underneath the mountains there’s a ring of fire so we’re exploring geothermal.” Aldrich says the board believes the science on climate change and recognizes the need to generate power locally. “Much of it is based on economic risk and the uncertainty. So by adopting a green portfolio we will avoid economic risk in the event that taxes are imposed on carbon or there’s a cap and trade."
Sixty-five percent of energy in the state is generated by hydropower, much from dams with a bad rap for their impact on stream flows and fish migration. In the case of the new hydropower plant at Young’s Creek, the utility has the support of state and federal agencies as well as the Tulalip Tribe. Daryl Williams is the tribe’s environmental liason. “This entire project is above the area that salmon migrate through.” The creek holds resident trout but minimum stream flows will be set to maintain those populations. “The project will primarily be operating during the wet season when there’s excess flows that can be used for power that the fish don’t really need.” Energy to operate the tribe’s casino is one Snohomish Public Utility District’s biggest demands. “We consume a lot of power on our reservation. I’d prefer it be this over power generated from fossil fuels.”
After showing off the infrastructure required to run the new plant — a turbine made in England, a shutoff valve in France, pipes from California, and control systems and computers made in nearby Monroe — it’s time to check out the new intake or dam located 900 feet uphill. It’s located above a natural barrier, a waterfall, so as not to impact migrating fish. The utility district’s Kim Moore says three features help protect the environment. One is a sluice gate. “At a period of high flows we will open that and let all the gravel go down, which is a requirement of the regulatory agencies and helps the fisheries. Over here we have a minimum instream flow and that makes sure we pass enough water to protect the resident trout.” The amount of water the plant can use is determined by the Department of Ecology, says Moore, 120 cubic feet per second or CFS. “At times this creek will flow at five and six hundred CFS. So at high times, probably 15 percent or 20 percent of the time, we can’t take all the water.”
But not everyone thinks building a new hydropower plant, no matter how small, is ecologically sound. Darcy Nonemacher is with American Rivers, a non-profit that works to restore salmon runs and keep water healthy. They favor new hydropower only if it means upgrading existing dams. “Any new dam, regardless of size is going to have an impact. The megawatts that you get from hydropower and from new dams in particular is very small and you’re really changing and altering a river system and its function.” Nonemacher points out that the impact of the Elwa dams on fish runs and the environment was far larger than the 19 megawatts produced. Referring to the power the new Young’s Creek dam will generate, “Seven megawatts is a very small amount of energy. I think there’s an important question about whether that energy could have been generated elsewhere.” Initiative 937, passed in 2009, requires public utilities have 3 percent qualifying renewables by 2012 and 15 percent by 2020. A new hydropower plant is considered non-qualifying, while retrofitting an existing one qualifying. Snohomish PUD’s qualifying renewable portfolio includes 8 percent wind and 3 percent biomass. They upgraded an existing dam at Woods Creek north of Monroe but have no other hydro projects currently on the table.