Navigating Oregon’s Largest Hydroelectric Project

Oregon’s Pelton Round Butte Hydro Project officially began generating power last month with a low-impact designation. The project, which is owned by Portland General Electric Company (PGE) and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (CTWS), was certified by the Low Impact Hydropower Institute (LIHI) based on an array of planned environmental protection measures, including a new fish-passage system that will be under construction this fall.

Because of the potential effects on fish populations and other environmental factors, electricity from a U.S. hydro plant may not be considered eligible to be sold as renewable energy until the related generating project has received LIHI certification. “The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs are finally beginning to see the benefit of efforts that have been undertaken during a long licensing process,” said Jim Manion, general manager, Warm Springs Power and Water Enterprises. “The commitment to restore the environment above the project has been a high priority for the Tribes.” Pelton Round Butte impounds the Deschutes River, a federal Wild and Scenic River and a tributary of the Columbia, about 90 miles southeast of downtown Portland. Its three dams have blocked fish passage, including that of wild salmon and steelhead, since 1968. In the current system, juvenile salmon and steelhead can’t find their way downstream because of turns in the current of the upper reservoir. Expected to be operating by the end of 2009, the new passage system will be a 273-foot high underwater tower that will take in most of the surface water, drawing the fish to a collection system that will send them below the dams. The design will enable approximately 96 percent of downstream migrating fish that arrive at the passage facility to safely transit into the lower Deschutes. The new system will reopen 226 miles of streams above the dams to fish migration while allowing continued production of low-cost, renewable hydroelectric power. Species to be reintroduced above the dams include summer steelhead (a federally listed threatened species) and spring Chinook salmon. Resident kokanee should naturally convert to sockeye salmon as they head downstream. “CTWS is the first tribe to take an ownership interest in a large hydroelectric complex. The Tribes have committed revenue that is not recoverable in a rate base to restore the fisheries that are vital to our culture,” added Manion. With a capacity of 465 megawatts, and one of its dams rising 440 feet, Pelton Round Butte is the second largest hydro project in the U.S. to receive the designation. Pelton Round Butte is unusual in that most certified projects are small dams, sometimes built in streams that have few migrating fish to begin with. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued the project’s new license in 2005. “Based on the feedback we received during our review of the Pelton Round Butte project, I believe that PGE’s and the Tribe’s approach will be a model for future FERC relicensings of complex large hydro projects,” said Fred Ayer, LIHI executive director. With a low-impact designation achieved by only 26 hydro plants in the U.S., Pelton Round Butte generates enough electricity to supply a city about the size of Oregon’s capital, Salem, with a population of 143,000.
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