ROCK DOC - Just saying no goes nowhere when addressing energy resources


Just over a century ago, an entrepreneur built the 108-foot-high Elwha Dam on the Olympic Peninsula. It became an early hydroelectric powerhouse, fueling industrial growth as varied as forestry and ship building.

In following decades more dams -- and many far larger -- were built in the West. Mega-dams like Grand Coulee rose across rivers and sharply cut electricity costs and helped control floods that had routinely threatened cities.

Some rivers, such as the lower Snake and Columbia, have also been transformed into bodies of water connected by locks that allow ocean barges to ship goods far inland.

We haven't built a major dam in the U.S. for many years. And now we're pivoting around another corner in history by this summer's start of the demolition of Elwha Dam and a sister facility as means to restore salmon and the free flow of the Elwha River.

The story of the dams matters, because, as we start to step backfrom hydroelectric power we will increase our reliance on other energy sources.

About half our national appetite for electricity has been satisfied by burning coal. Coal gives us cheap energy, but most people don't want to use more coal because of its environmental harms.

In recent years, we've built many new natural gas-powered plants. But some people argue we should save that resource for more of our transportation and home heating and cooking needs.

About a fifth of our national electricity is generated by nuclear reactors. But after events in Japan this year, many Americans are wary of nukes and likely won't support building new ones.

While we've seen sharp growth in wind power, the total electricity delivered by wind is small and some people don't want windmills near them, contending they create noise and visual pollution.

But it's a simple fact we need electricity, a miraculously flexible energy that can either heat or cool a space and run devices we depend on.

Life is about tradeoffs. We can remove dams, and in some places we'll help salmon runs if we do. But we can't usefully address our energy needs if we only say no to various sources.

The time for a good public discussion of the evolving landscape for electricity is past due.

E. Kirsten Peters, Ph.D., is a rural Northwest native whose column is a service Washington State University. Follow her at


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