Sociotechnical imaginaries and Energy Development in the PNW

I gave a talk at the Annual meeting for the Society for the Social Studies of Science this year and here is the essay it’s based on. I’m pretty happy about the concepts and am excited to try to turn this into a paper at some point.  This is a work in progress for sure, lots of editing needed but thought it would be worthwhile to get it on here for comments if any should arise.


Clean energy futures are most commonly discussed in terms of advances and innovations in science and technology. The multitude of problems linked to the “energy dilemma” is the focus of energy, climate and environmental policies. Examining the EIA’s Energy Outlook or the Obama Administration’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, or listening to popular environmentalists like Stewart Brand or Al Gore illustrates the central role of technological fixes to these energy problems. They depict energy futures based on technological innovation or fuel development rather than social or political changes. In fact, technologies often seem isolated, removed from societal relationships, operating as an autonomous entity that can solve our energy problems. Or they are deemed unsafe, unreliable, and uncertain, portrayed as a source of problems. If technologies are the objects through which problems can be solved or created, then it is easy to see how political and cultural resources are mobilized to affect change in particular visions of technological progress.  This purely technical view is convenient because it seemingly does not involve social or cultural changes.  However, energy transitions cannot just be technological. As Clark Miller noted in a recent issue of Science as Culture, “the key choices involved in energy transitions are not so much between different fuels but between different forms of social, economic, and political arrangements built in combination with new energy technologies” (Miller et al 2013: 139). And as Ozzie Zehner poignantly points out in his book Green Illusions, the “technologies we create are only as durable as the context we create for them.”

In general, solutions to energy problems ignore how a better understanding of the human and social dimensions of science and technology can improve our understanding of energy problems and the transitions that are deemed necessary for the public good.  The lack of theorization about the interconnections between political power and science and technology agendas is made clear in Jasanoff and Kim’s conception of sociotechnical imaginaries, or the “collectively imagined forms of social life and social order reflected in the design and fulfillment of nation-specific scientific and/or technological projects. Imaginaries, in this sense, at once describe attainable futures and prescribe futures that states believe ought to be attained” (Jasanoff and Kim 2009).  If we take this as our understanding, energy transitions are about who benefits and who is put at risk. In short, they involve politics.  But they are also about the power of regulatory institutions, the structure of markets, and the distribution of wealth, and about how we live and work.

As David Nye argues in his book Consuming Power, “The processes of capitalism and industrialization alone does not explain this rapid development or this national difference [in energy systems and consumption]. Culture does.” And at the same time, the energy systems from earlier generations are embedded within society and they are not fossilized, but rather, they continue to due “cultural work”. The seeming hegemonic or obdurate character of large technological systems is culturally shaped. Therefore, the social and human dimensions of energy also require historical examination and without understanding this, policy-makers, researchers, activists, and investors hoping to direct energy transitions are likely to encounter political opposition and may contribute to unintended adverse impacts” (Miller et al 2013: 140).

The analytical approach of sociotechnical imaginaries allows us to view the policies and strategies for realizing energy transitions as cultural and political resources that help shape and illicit social responses to technological changes.  These energy imaginaries depict imagined forms of durable social and natural life achieved at the regional and national scale.  However, imaginaries can and do sometimes conflict between regions and their containing nations.  Furthermore, energy and sociotechnical imaginaries influence how we act and plan for meeting future energy demand, the extent of that demand, and this entails visioning or imagining what sort of “good” public life is in the future.

The questions guiding my research are related to both the sociotechnical imaginaries of energy transitions, and to the cultural and technical repercussions of these imaginaries at different scales. This highlights the politics of energy transitions: a technopolitics marked by what some call “technological fixes”. Each of these “fixes” is in fact a technological assemblage, a piece of a broader technopolitical regime marked by a system of artifacts, experts, organizations, policies, and paradigms that simultaneously produce technical and political power (Hecht 1998).  How do sociotechnical imaginaries explain the benefits and risks, the “who wins and who loses” of energy transitions? How do fantasies and imaginaries form around certain energy systems? Do these display common features across different technologies and over long periods of time? And what might these mean for contemporary discussions about energy? In short, how is energy planning and politics affected by sociotechnical imaginaries, and how do sociotechnical imaginaries shape our energy technologies? What explains variations in the way technological systems progress in different regions or nations?

Although I am discussing historical case studies, I am not a historian. I am an engineer, an urban planning student, and a student of STS. My methods are based on a comparative case study approach of two large-scale technological systems: dams and nuclear power facilities in two different time periods. Case study methodology coupled with discourse analysis allowed me to explore the values and beliefs embedded within different energy policies and energy imaginaries, or as Sovacool and Brossman coin them, fantastic “energy fantasies”. Nuclear power and hydropower in the Pacific Northwest are two cases that exemplify the ways sociotechnical imaginaries, and the ensuing technopolitics, shape and are shaped by energy technologies.  Both nuclear power and hydropower have national, regional and local implications, and both were championed as superefficient, mega producers of energy gaining significant interest during wartime mobilization.

Hydroelectric dams in the 1930s and 1940s typified large and centralized infrastructure, offered electrical services along with irrigation and flood control, and were used predominately by electric utilities with federal oversight. Nuclear fission in the 1950s and 1960s planned for reactors big and small, providing endless amounts of energy in an “atomic age”, and each of these technologies were to be used by various actors. In each case, the interaction between the sociotechnial imaginary and technology was mutually constitutive. Here the term Shelia Jasanoff uses is “co-production”, or the mutual shaping of the world and our understandings of it such that each bolsters the other. Each of these technologies suggested that energy transition was occurring and generated highly optimistic, and at times unrealistic, expectations about what the new technologies could deliver. At the same time, such “fantasies” helped create energy transitions because they made it easier for entrepreneurs to obtain financing, receive favorable legislation, and attract a larger customer base. However, “the interaction between fantasy and energy technology persuaded policymakers and the public (at large) to ignore or downplay some meaningful social and environmental costs” (Sovacool and Brossman 2013).


Hydropower: 1930s-1950s.


Paul Hirt notes in his terrific study of the history of electric power, The Wired Northwest, that hydropower could be thought of in terms of its ability to solve the social and economic problems of the region. The sociotechnical imaginary constructed around hydropower was one that was co-produced during its emergence as a major supplier of energy. “The gospel of hydro” was touted by regional advocates suggesting almost unlimited growth was possible, such that an industrial powerhouse could grow alongside the banks of the mighty rivers of the northwest, and the emerging politics coincided with this dominant rhetoric.  Minimal regulation and market oversight provided the incentives along with cheap energy for tremendous development. However, political contests over the monopoly control of riverways were also central to the time period.  President Roosevelt saw this is a part of his national power planning agenda, and with his establishment of the National Power Policy Committee (NPCC) in 1934, he sought “yardstick” rates for public and private utilities.  This fueled public power enthusiasts and conservationists to lobby for the dissolution of monopolistic holding companies. These large holding companies were broken up with the 1935 Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA), one of the “trust-busting” initiatives enacted in response to the Great Depression.

FDR ushered in a new era of federal support for hydropower with the New Deal legislation and the associated programs, which heavily affected the Pacific Northwest.  Roosevelt ran on a campaign that was driven by a broad social vision of coordinated regional development, with widely dispersed and more equitable prosperity, yielding self-sustaining productive and democratic communities that conserved and preserved their local natural resources. Contention over New Deal programs, such as the proposed Columbia Valley Authority, which was meant to mirror the Tennessee Valley Authority and was shot down in fierce opposition leaving the more limited Bonneville Power Authority (later Administration), and similar programs met similar opposition.  1935 was a huge year for FDR and the US, it marked Roosevelt’s trust-busting Public Utility Holding Company Act, created the Rural Electrification Administration, expanded the regulatory powers of the Federal Power Commission, and its purpose was to facilitate systemic changes with a preference for public organizations. These grand visions were highly associated with the technological achievements of the huge hydropower projects.  Social and economic progress was tied to the advancement of federally backed power projects.

The river embodied different values to different actors in the region: The river as a prime mover of kilowatts and a robust economic opportunity was juxtaposed against the river as a vast ecosystem with inherent value and valuable fish and wildlife resources (Vogel, 2011; White, 1995).  The negotiation and contemplation of hydropower development was central to the production of collective visions of good and attainable futures with a focus on economic growth. The Columbia was slated for significant engineering projects, as the Corp of Engineers conducted studies in the 1920s as to the placement and size of hydro facilities, two of which would be the federally backed Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, huge massive projects slated for massive amounts of production. In fact, at the time the two dam projects were proposed, they were predicted to produce more energy than all the large electric utilities were producing in the Northwest. But there was faith that the facilities would attract electricity-intensive industries which could stimulate the regional economy.  The national vision for hydro shaped the regional and local imaginaries, and the “gospel of hydro” was sung across the region, quite literally. In the 1940s, the BPA hired Woody Guthrie to create an album about the Columbia River, and as he sang in his song entitled “Ballad of the Great Grand Coulee” you could easily sense the faith placed in technological development for social and economic progress: “Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thirty-three, For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me, He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea, But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”

The economic climate after the Great Depression was quite meager, with close to a quarter of the population unemployed, and the hope was that large hydro projects could ameliorate those woes. There was a general hope tied to not only the immediate construction boon, but the possibility of a sustained future development around industries benefitting from the cheap power, irrigation, flood control, and navigation improvements—all of which undergirded a prevalent technological optimism and hope.  This was coupled with a near utopian vision of the possible forms of social and economic organization, as many felt capitalism had failed them, in which cities and industries would work in concert with rural communities to conserve resources and provider a better quality of life.  For example the Regional Planning Association of America and the Technical Alliance with thinkers like Lewis Mumford and Stuart Chase promoted ideas of social transformation aided by electrification (“A Vision in Killawatts”).  Electricity began to be associated with a sublime vision of an American Dream and an “electrical empire” in the Pacific Northwest as Washington Senator Clarence Dill.

There were also many skeptics to these grand federal “impositions” and amongst them were largely private utilities. The federal projects would have a preference for public utilities and rural electrification and low “yardstick” electricity rates which had the potential to flood the markets and drive prices down, a big disadvantage to profit-seeking private companies.  Other were concerned about the salmon, but FDR proposed fish ladders would fix the problem. But the private-public dispute wasn’t so easy to overcome. FDR framed the resolution in terms of infrastructure investments, such that it would eliminate the future risk of private utilities building dams with uncertain electricity demand in the future although public utilities were given preference.  The cheap electricity did begin to induce greater demand as light-metals production and manufacturing located in the region.

Federal projects were constructed by the Corp of Engineers and the Bureau of Reclamation who were also responsible for comprehensive river basin development planning, the first of its kind, which was documented in the “308 plans” named after the House Document 308. This served as the basis for the TVA and subsequent river basin planning such as the in Pacific Northwest. Before the Bonneville act passed, there was heated debate over the legislation, namely over the marketing of power from the dams.  This created conflicts between private and public power industries, urban versus rural residents, and between governmental units. Ultimately, the BPA would be responsible for marketing power and constructing transmission lines while the Corps would handle the dam operations. The Administrator was given tremendous discretionary power in the statute; he would set the rates (which remained uniform for a long period) and was allowed to takes any necessary steps to ensure dam construction and operation was efficient which meant the ability to purchase, lease or condemn private property. It was with this authority that the BPA was able to start construction on transmission projects connecting the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams, the start of a regionalized electric grid (Holstine, 1988)

During WWII, dam building grew significantly because the power produced was extremely inexpensive and could facilitate the electrochemical and smelting processes needed to make materials like aluminum and for manufacturing airplanes, ships, tanks, guns, and munitions.  Take the following snippet from the 1942 statement on “The War Program of the Department of the Interior”:

The war budget of $56 billion will require 154 billion kWh of electric energy annually for the manufacture of airplanes, tanks, guns, warships, and fighting material, and to equip and serve the men of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. [1]

The push of wartime production demand mandated the additional installation of more generating capacity than all of the existing electric utilities in the US had at that time. “In 1942, 8.5 billion kWh of electric power was required to produce enough aluminum to meet the President’s goal of 60,000 new planes…In1941, the Bureau of Reclamation produced more than five billion kWh, resulting in a 25 percent increase in aluminum production. By 1944, Reclamation quadrupled its hydroelectric power output. From 1940 through 1945, Reclamation power plants produced 47 billion kWh of electricity, enough to make: 69,000 airplanes, 79,000 machine guns, 5,000 ships, 5,000 tanks, 7,000,000 aircraft bombs, and 31,000,000 shells.” [2]  The Bureau of Reclamation provided much of the needed electrical energy to the burgeoning military industries, all which demanded high amounts of electricity.

What allowed such a massive push in the production of electricity by hydropower dams, and how did this fuel the massive growth of hydropower dams in the region? The federal role in expanding the Pacific Northwest’s power production facilities expounded a nationalist technological agenda led by wartime politics. Atomic energy installations were located at Hanford, Washington, to make use of hydropower from Grand Coulee and to produce plutonium for atom bombs. While power output of Reclamation projects energized the war industry, it was also used to process food, light military posts, and meet needs of the civilian population in many areas. With the end of the war, power plants were put to use in rapidly developing industries. Hydropower was vital for the West’s industries, and in fact, they became dependent on this source, wherein times of periodic low flows on the Columbia River have disrupted manufacturing in that region. The benefits of hydropower, including flood control and irrigation, rural electrification, and recreation, were contrasted against the stark transformations of the Columbia River’s landscape.

Power policy was still in the forefront at the federal level and BPA was able to attract defense industries with cheap hydro power.  In 1942 approximately 92% of BPA’s load was industry, but that calmed after the war (Spies, 1990).  Federal regulation actually strengthened the bond between public and private power as private industry started to provide more reliable, higher quality service and invest in public relations.  In the mobilization of the region in wartime, the NW Power Pool, a volunteer partnership of utilities, both public and private, was created.  This cooperation continued in post-war era planning with unique and creative financing and construction deals, but first, prospective hydropower development was speculated. In 1933 the Upper Columbia River Basin was surveyed for potential storage and this initiated the Bureau of Reclamation’s Hungry Horse Project.[5]  In addition, two main policies were enacted that authorized many water development projects: 1944 Flood Control Act and the 1945 Rivers and Harbors Act.[6] After the war, industry in the Pacific Northwest declined and there were huge power surpluses in the region. BPA needed to step up and plan for future problems as they became more of a regional economic planning entity aimed at encouraging growth in the region. They didn’t want surplus, and thus, began to enter into industrial contracts with the aluminum industry. Non-firm power, or interruptible power, was sold to industry at discounted rates (Redmann, 1983). Soon after, however, energy consumption in the region increased, steadily for 30 years, and new problems of shortages were beginning to emerge.

At the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee in 1946, then it was known as the Tacoma Conference, a coalition of public and private utilities and industries came together to discuss the structure of the electricity market. They lobbied Congress for new dams, created forecasts for growth, and played a critical role in system expansion, putting pressure on the BPA to increase capacity and transmission projects. BPA was under further pressure when the Eisenhower Administration cut financing for federal projects and reduced the role of the federal government. BPA now had to cover all costs. Competition was encouraged and BPA began to interact more with private utilities, offering sale of any power not committed to public utilities and negotiated 20 year contracts for access to low cost power (Hittle, Larson, Randall, & Michie, 1980).  This boosted non-federal development in the region and gave private utilities more authority in planning for future development.  Public-private partnerships for new developments were growing. Many local utilities had been given rights to develop water power projects while private utilities provided the much needed equity and capital through long term purchase contracts.  Public utilities owned and operated the dams, sold the electric output to private companies and financed the rest with tax exempt bonds (Blumm, 1983). The nature of relationships between public utilities and private utilities had continued to grow more collaborative, especially when BPA began to allow private utilities to “wheel” power over the vast federal transmission system.  This was not allowed, technically, until 1974[7], but transmission lines to serve non-federal projects were being constructed in the 1950s (D. Goble, 1999). Thus, BPA started to play a significant role in the private power market.

By this time in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the numerous projects from the New Deal had increased capacity greatly and BPA was crippled with surpluses and budget deficits.  BPA was able to negotiate new repayment schedules, with minimal interest, to ensure continued low prices. Critics suggest this low pricing is exactly what caused problems later down the road in the energy crises of the 1970s and in the blackouts of 2000-2001 because BPA was not covering the “true costs” of power and transmission due to externalities (Costello & Haarmeyer, 1992).  Also, in this time dubbed the “Golden Age” of northwest hydropower, the fifteen year storage capacity expansion efforts, studies, and international legislation discussions were drawing to a close and finally agreed upon in the 50-50 share of downstream benefits of the near doubling of system capacity with Canadian parties. The Columbia River Treaty was ratified in 1964 and shortly thereafter the Columbia Storage Power Exchange sold the Canadian entitlement back to the United States; half to 4 private utilities and half to 41 public utilities (Lesser, 1990). BPA’s role as a power marketer grew. In this period, BPA contemplated expansion of the transmission system to California, which was economically feasible, but questionable because the BPA was meant to benefit the northwest.  This effort was limited to wheeling of surplus power only by the 1964 Northwest Regional Preference Act; and now California utilities had interests vested in development of hydropower and political affairs in Pacific Northwest (C. F. Luce & Kaseberg, 1965).


Nuclear Power: 1950s-1970s.


As the “water development binge” continued after the war, the rapidly rising energy use and declining costs in the region that were crucial to rural electrification and industrialization had begun to get satiated, and the growth forced planners to think about how to meet such a growing demand in the future. In the 1960s, there had been an unquestioned assumption that healthy economic growth required more generation of electricity. This experience crafted a new imaginary (or arguably an inherited imaginary from the hydro days), one of “endless and limitless growth” and this seemingly convinced decision-makers and experts in the energy industry to make straight-line projections from the past and to predict a high-demand future.   One energy analyst commented on the dilemma that was power planning in the 1960s:

The average use of electricity per household doubled between 1950 and 1960 reflecting the rapid market penetration of electric space heating and rose an additional 50 percent between1960 and 1980.Thermal power supporters pointed to this as positive evidence of an expanding economy and made a simplistic correlation between healthy economic growth and energy usage.

As an outcome of a series of closed meetings was the projected need for twenty-six nuclear and coal plants to meet demand through 1995. Their favorable experiences with big hydro and transmission projects oriented the managers towards large-scale modes of generation. And the future prospects for nuclear power in the region were discussed with a favorable and open ear as the “atomic age” approached.

The political climate during the war had a tremendous impact on the public’s view of nuclear power. During the war, the creation of the Hanford Site for plutonium production was supported in a sweeping national movement of patriotism and security. The technological dominance of “natural lands” was epitomized by the total erasure of the farming communities at the to-be site of the Hanford facility.  The acquisition of lands was performed undemocratically, using eminent domain, forcing out the farming communities without deliberation in the name of a national emergency.

Peter Bacon Hales[3] interprets the Manhattan Project as “the end of American innocence”[4] by characterizing it as the dividing line between ‘a pastoral, individualistic, democratic past and a bureaucratic, efficient, authoritarian and technocratic future.’ The effort to build the bomb he contends, stood ‘completely… at odds with the basic values of American democracy of its time, even with the wartime patriotism and sacrifice taken into account.’ Blending together traits of ‘corporate capitalism, government social management and military codes of coercion and obedience,’ the Manhattan Engineer District and Atomic Energy Commission colonized American society more generally by replacing democracy with a culture of repression. Hales portrays the change as particularly harsh in less urbanized and less industrialized regions such as prewar Hanford, in which community is portrayed nostalgically as a ‘tight-knit mutual-aid society’ ”(Findlay and Hevly 2011: 212).

Nuclear risks, public health and safety, and environmental pollution were a major concern at the Hanford site.  However, much of the studies performed soon after WWII never reached the public. Instead, information flowed through expert channels where debate concerning the science of radiation would not be “contaminated” by the politics of the public.  Deliberations were held only amongst AEC commissioners, which “manifested the ‘extreme centralization of decision making within the AEC,’ noted historian Brian Balogh, making decision safety a secondary concern” (Findlay and Hevly 2011: 220).

The Tri-City Herald portrayed the public opinion about nuclear power in the PNW east of the Cascades suggesting places like Eugene and Seattle would continue to argue against nuclear, whereas the Tri-Cities offered what another nuclear proponent deemed the “precious ingredient of ‘Public Acceptance (sic)’” which would facilitate the rapid progress needed to avoid regional energy shortages.” (231). Daniel Pope discussed how the Eugene, Oregon community rallied against nuclear power in 1970 when two years before a bond measure to raise a nuclear power plant had been “overwhelmingly approved”.

Hanford became a “regional sacrifice zone” such that western portions of the region could shift industry to help their environments and not take on the extra impact of nuclear development and associated industry development.  The Herald played a central role in crafting a discourse of necessity, of economic development with nuclear or decline without it, and put a sort of inevitable spin on the idea that the tri-cities area needed nuclear for its future.

As Findlay and Hevly note: “Forecasts of an imminent shortage of electricity in the PNW appeared to make additional power plants a matter of grave importance, especially during the peak years of America’s ‘energy crisis’ in the early 1970s. It was widely claimed that the nation needed to double its power supply every decade, and that failing to meet this target would endanger its security and its economy. Congressman Chet Holifield (D-CA) of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, speaking at Richland in 1970, made what became a staple prediction. America’s population would increase by 50 percent, from 200 million to 300 million, by the year 2000. In order to maintain an adequate standard of living, the country would need to generate seven times as much electricity as it produced in 1970 and do so in a “safe, reliable and economical” fashion. Holifield expected nuclear power plants to provide most of the new electricity. In 1970, they accounted for only 2 percent of American capacity; in 1980, he predicted, they would have to provide 50 percent”  (2011: 230-231).

With the steady rise in demand, BPA’s continued commitment to growth, and the forecasts for continued growth, the region committed to thermal power generation. The Hanford Reactor was a cogeneration nuclear reactor intended for both creation of nuclear arms and nuclear power. BPA and the Washington Public Power supply had negotiated a financing scheme known as “net billing” which became the cornerstone of the future thermal power program.  In net billing, BPA purchased output from the plant, issuing credits to the utilities up to the cost of construction(C. F. Luce & Munro, 1983).  Expansion seemed necessary during this period, but disaster was on the forefront and planners would be faced with redefining their field and implementation strategies.

Widespread support for the Hydrothermal Power Program (HTPP) was evident by the formation of the Joint Power Planning Council, a consortium of BPA and over 100 utilities, who did long range planning studies. They found they needed a ten year thermal power expansion program to meet expected demand increases which included 7 thermal power plants, additional generators at dam sites, and additional transmission facilities. Built on the idea that net billing would cover the costs, they started construction of the power plants. This came to a screeching halt 5 year later when construction costs skyrocketed and overcame the projected revenues from future sales at the rates in the net billing contract. In 1972, IRS removed the tax exemption status from BPA’s bonds used to finance the plants, and in 1973 they abandoned net billing all together (Foote, Larsen, & Maddox, 1976). A second attempt to revive the HTPP was attempted in the face of projected energy shortages without plans to add resources.  BPA had terminated sales of firm power to private utilities and inequities began to resurface as private utilities increased rates.  Attempts to renegotiate contracts with industrial customers were proposed, allowing for more non-firm power, but this still failed.  Public involvement through environmental organizations grew, and the Sierra Club filed suit because BPA failed to perform an environmental impact statement for the projects as required by the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA).  BPA explained they could not meet the loads of their industrial customers and could not renew contracts (Sawicki, 1985).  Two of the nuclear power plants were mothballed more than halfway through construction, and a congressional solution was sought.

Major changes were on the forefront in the late 1970s at the time of the crises in the Pacific Northwest. With the WPPSS debacle resulting in the $2.25 billion municipal loan default, BPA in serious debt, and planners’ forecasts of substantial growth in demand and no means of system expansion, there was a dilemma unlike any other in the history of the power system in the Pacific Northwest.  Part of the reason for the crisis was the straight line forecasting used by power planners to predict growth; the method worked well in the past, so there was little reason to change.  However, planners didn’t even account for price changes or any policy factors in their forecasts (Pope, 1993). Another reason was that BPA has no public oversight or review, and when combated with environmental interests against the polluting thermal power plants and potentially dangerous nuclear plants and effects of developments on fish and wildlife, the draft plans suggested they could not meet industrial loads when subjected to environmental regulations under NEPA. In the past the BPA was thought to be a public entity because of its public preference clause, and its demonstrated commitment to economic development in the region; however, they overlooked the democratic processes of public involvement in plan making.  With these problems, the BPA lobbied Congress for purchasing authority, and after three years, President Carter signed the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Act (Northwest Power Act). [8]

Michael Blumm (1983) offered several reasons for the passing of the act, mainly in that it satisfied all parties involved: (1) rate disparities were minimized by providing private utilities access to BPA low cost power, (2) existing industrial customers got higher rates and more interruptible power but longer contracts, (3) preference customers were guaranteed rates would not increase, (4) BPA was given purchase authority to expand system but subject to the plans made by the Pacific Northwest Electric Power Planning and Conservation Council (the Council) who advocated conservation and renewable energy development alternatives, (5) provisions in the legislation for “cost effective” acquisition including the environmental costs, and a resource priority scheme favoring conservation and renewables, (6) a Columbia Basin fish and wildlife preservation and restoration program as advised by the NW Council, and (7) mandatory public involvement in resource decisions through open process, public reviews and questioning.  The Northwest Power Act was a revolutionary political development and many questioned its constitutionality because the state-appointed NW Council would guide the actions of a federal agency, the BPA (Blumm, 1988; D. D. Goble, 1986).  However, the Act has been upheld in the courts.  Pluralism was badly needed in the BPA; the Council would guide development and resource acquisition, and with governmental restricting and the creation of the Department of Energy (DOE), BPA was moved to the DOE from the Department of the Interior, and public review was made mandatory.

This mandate to plan regionally and include public processes was a tremendous change in the power planning arena. Otherwise piecemeal and isolated planning using relatively simple supply and demand analysis with constant growth was replaced with more sophisticated comprehensive plans based on multiple path futures, full cost-benefit analyses, and econometric models based on price theory.  The least cost or “cost effective” objective was desired, and the notion of uncertainty was carried in plans.  Objectives were heavily influenced by the environmental movement; conservation and renewable energy were given preference, preservation and restoration of fish and wildlife was mandatory, and full realization of the environmental costs of further development of resources had to be included in analyses (Blumm, 1996).      The Northwest Power Act made significant changes to the power planning field: public power preference translated into cooperation among all utility systems; priority was given to conservation and efficient use, which ultimately meant least cost planning because conservation is the lowest cost solution; the realization that power planning was a largely political issue, not technical, and thus public involvement to ensure a pluralistic process with consideration of differing views was necessary(Goldrich, 1986); and  lowest possible rates must be set to include environmental costs:    internalization of these costs and enterprise liability in electric power planning, operation and ratemaking (Michie, 1978).

[1] US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Power Resources Office,  “Managing Water in the West: Hydroelectric Power”, July 2005.

[2] ^ibid.

[3] (1997). Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project. University of Illinois Press: Chicago.

[4] John M. Findlay and Bruce Hevly. (2011). Atomic Frontier Days. University of Washington.


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