Pick your poison: Wild salmon or global warming

Every dam removed in favor of a fish run subtracts more renewable energy from the grid

Published July 7, 2009 10:25AM (EDT)

Is our love of salmon hindering the fight against global warming?

Such is the question obliquely raised by energy analyst Geoffrey Styles in a post published today on hydropower, "The Forgotten Renewable."

Styles takes as his jumping-off point a recent New York Times article supporting the demolition of four salmon-run inhibiting dams on the Snake River in Washington state. The key factoid (italics mine):

What is clear, however, is that if the four facilities typically operate at the national average hydropower utilization rate of around 36 percent, their annual power generation would come to about 10 million megawatt-hours (MWh) of electricity, equivalent to the output of 4,000 MW of wind capacity, or roughly 20 percent of the entire US wind power output in 2008. After a banner year for wind turbine installations in 2008, the US might not add much more new wind capacity than that this year, and wind remains the largest-scale technology among our preferred renewable power options. In fact, since 1999 US hydropower output has declined by an amount greater than the entire current contribution of wind power.

Styles is upset that the Waxman-Markey energy bill effectively discriminates against hydropower in favor of solar and wind, by not including it under the category of "qualified renewables." He sees an implicit contradiction between simultaneously attempting to revive fish runs by getting rid of dams and lowering greenhouse gas emissions by promoting renewable energy.

I think most environmentalists (not to mention salmon fishermen or salmon consumers) would deny that these impulses are contradictory. There may be a short-term negative trade-off, but the same underlying principle undergirds both the effort to ensure healthy wild salmon fish runs and a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. We're striving for sustainable ways for humans to be on this planet. One could well ask: If stopping global warming requires damming up all the rivers and saying goodbye to all the wild salmon, why bother?

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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