UEC CEO: Future Bright Despite Political Threats to Hydropower

Robert Echenrode, general manager and CEO of Umatilla Electric Cooperative, addresses the members Saturday during the cooperative's annual meeting. (Photo: Michael Kane)

The general manager and CEO of Umatilla Electric Cooperative told its members Saturday night that the benefits of hydropower are at risk by organized activists and a sympathetic judge.

Robert Echenrode told a packed Hermiston Community Center that cheap, abundant hydropower has helped create a multi-billion dollar farm and food processing economy in the Hermiston area. But that economy is threatened by political activists.

“There’s tremendous pressure from activists to breach the lower Snake River dams,” Echenrode said. “They are well organized with a judge that is sympathetic to their message.”

Environmental activists have long lobbied for action to help the Pacific Northwest’s salmon population. Breaching dams would be a major act, but small actions also can have impacts that affect utilities and ratepayers.

Echenrode spoke of a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit that orders more water spilled over the region’s dams to help salmon get past the dams.

“The decision to add more spill to the river system overrides a long-standing salmon recovery plan that is supported by scientists and engineers at federal agencies, the Northwest tribes, by local state governments, and many industry stakeholders,” Echenrode said, adding that it is debatable as to whether additional spills provide any benefit to the salmon.

Echenrode said that power lost through spills over the dams rather than through the turbines will have to be replaced by something.

“Most likely gas-fired generation that Bonneville Power Administration will have to purchase to meet its obligations,” he said. He also said that Bonneville anticipates a surcharge could be added to wholesale power bills that could increase pressure on UEC to pass along any surcharge to ratepayers.

“So, with the court-ordered spill, we’re possibly harming fish and replacing clean hydro power with electricity produced with a greater carbon footprint,” Echenrode said. “As we have in the past, we will continue to oppose those measures that will needlessly harm the progress we have made together.”

Echenrode said, however, that UEC is in a strong position and is poised for continued growth.

“At UEC, we are in an envious position compared to other utilities,” he said. “We continue to grow because our community continues to grow. In 2013, we reached annual sales of 1 billion kilowatt hours. It took us 77 years to reach that mark. We doubled that last year. And by 2019, we will sell 3 billion kilowatt hours.”

Echenrode said the demand for electricity in UEC’s service territories is rising at a pace unsurpassed in the Northwest.

“New growth pays for itself,” he said. “New members and current members pay for the new infrastructure that’s needed to serve them.”

Echenrode said UEC is continuing to upgrade its electrical infrastructure. He said a top priority in 2018 will be preparing to build the McNary-to-Hermiston Butte transmission line.

“It will add another crucial link to our system to serve our members’ needs,” he said.