Guest Column

Sustainable Growth Requires Reliable Hydropower

or 85 years, Flathead Electric Cooperative has been hard at work providing affordable, reliable power to our valley

By Lorraine Clarno and Erica Wirtala

When we’re floating and fishing on the stunning Three Forks of the Flathead River, we don’t always think about how our rivers are part of the Columbia River Basin’s headwaters. However, our waters flow from Northwest Montana all the way to the Pacific Ocean – about 700 miles from our backyards – and electricity flows back up to us from hydroelectric dams on those rivers.

If well-meaning, but misguided, groups hadn’t proposed removing the lower Snake River hydroelectric dams, your chambers of commerce might never have raised their level of concern regarding how connected we are to the Pacific Northwest via rivers and high-voltage transmission power lines. However, certain well-known groups are calling very loudly for the removal of these dams. After listening to presentations from our local electric co-op, we are gravely aware of what’s at stake if these dams are removed.

Together, the four lower Snake River dams provide an average of about 1,000 megawatts of electricity annually. That’s enough to power a city the size of Seattle! These dams are a critical resource in meeting peak power loads and maintaining the reliability of our grid for our businesses and residents.

For 85 years, Flathead Electric Cooperative has been hard at work providing affordable, reliable power to our valley. As a not-for-profit owned by its 56,000-plus members and governed by its democratically elected Board of Trustees, the Co-op’s mission is to provide competitive and reliable services, achieve the highest level of member satisfaction, and enhance the quality of life in our communities. In support of the three tenets of its mission, the Co-op is currently talking to its members about the societal harms that would occur with the dams’ removal. 

If the lower Snake River dams are removed the Co-op warns us that:

1. Our power bills are likely to increase by a minimum of 25%.

2. Our current risk of blackouts and brownouts more than doubles. Those are not just an inconvenience, but a very serious threat to human health and safety in an area as cold as ours can be.

3. Our environment will suffer, as our carbon footprint will increase. Hydroelectric dams currently produce about 80% of our carbon-free electricity. At the same time, we’ll reduce our ability to reliably add new wind and solar power, which are also carbon-free, to the grid, because we need hydro to back up these intermittent renewables.

As recent headlines underscore, the Flathead Valley is growing. That growth impacts all of us, whether we’ve been here for generations or arrived last week. Together, our increasing need for affordable, reliable, carbon-free electricity requires us to keep all our options on the table.

On behalf of our members, Kalispell and Whitefish chambers of commerce implore you to learn more about these issues, and to take action to protect our hydropower. You can visit www.flatheadelectric.com/takeaction to learn more.

Kalispell Chamber President and CEO Lorraine Clarno; Kalispell Chamber board chair Erica Wirtala; Whitefish Chamber Executive Director Kevin Gartland; and Whitefish Chamber board chair Jeff Raper.

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