When Franklin Delano Rossevelt ordered the building of the Grand Coulee and Bonneville dans im 1933, critics charged that this world's largest hydroelectric project would generate more energy than the Northwest could ever use.
But the New Dealers saw the dams in a much more optimistic light -- as assets that would lift the region out of the Depression and assure its economic future. Woody Guthrie, a pilgrim to the great projects on the Columbia River in the 1930s, could "hear the factories hum, making chrome, and making manganese and light a-lum-in-um."
Today, Guthrie's vision of the region's future has proved all too acurate.
Every kilowatt of power from the dams is being used.
And the clamor for a share of the cheap federal power has plunged cities, industries, utility companies and the U.S. government into a bitter struggle that repeatedly threatens to flare into all-out regional civil war.
In a sense, this the Pacific Northwest's own private problem. But in other ways, what is happening is a preview of a politics of scarcity into which the whole nation is being drawn.
One great frustration for many northwesterners is that so much of the new debate is couched in technicalities that only experts can understand. The Politics of Power
In the 1930s, crusaders organized public power districts to break the influence of the private utilities. But good guys and bad guys are far more difficult to dientify in the current enactment of the power fights of 40 years ago.
Environmentalists are fighting public power groups as well as the private utilities in an effort to prevent more nuclear plants.
They charge that a bill now working its way through Congress is a blueprint for nuclear expansion. And they claim that the federal government -- which was once the great benefactor of the region -- could become an unwitting guarantor of this expansion that they strongly oppose.
Private utilities, meanwhile, sensing some weakening of the political muscle of the old public power movement, are pressing to be cut in on a guaranteed share of the cheap federal hydroelectric power.
But far from opposing this, some of the regions's most powerful politicians are supporting it on grounds that the homeowners and farmers who are customers of these private utility companies have been unfairly discriminated against in the division of benefits from the federal dams.
The situation also has drawn attention to one of the striking paradoxes of the present energy crisis.
The Northwest is home for 10 plants belonging to six huge aluminum companies. These plants use one-fifth of the all the region's electricity and one-third of the electricity from the federal dam system. If Big Aluminum were not in the Northwest, there would be no energy shortage until the 1980s.
But there is another side to this. The plants produce one-third of the nation's aluminum -- a product that is increasingly in demand as an energy saver in automobiles and home insulation because of its unique properties of lightness, strength and durability. This has given the country a stake in the preservation of a U.S. aluminum industry.
Even if the legislation in Congress succeeds in bringing energy peace to the region, it will not bring back the days of cheap electricity. A way of life, built around the nation's lowestcost power, is in the process of being overturned.
"We are crossing the thermal threshold," says Seattle Mayor Charles Royer in a gloomy reference to 10 new nuclear plants -- one built, five under construction and four on the drawing boards -- that are being factored into the energy planning of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana.
More than three-quarters of the regions's electricity still comes from the turbines at about 150 dams. But according to some scenarios, half the area's electrical energy will have to come from unclear or coal plants by the 1990s.
Electrical energy is the leading power source in the Pacific Northwest, and likely to remain so. Alaskan oil is delivered to California and is cumbersome to obtain at Washington and Oregon ports. The area's capacity for more hydroelectric staions is limited.
This means that thermal and coal plants will be called on to boost the electrical load of the region from an average 17,000 megawatts today to more than 24,000 megawatts by 1990.
This new 7,000 megawatts will be extremely expensive energy. The cost of the five nuclear plants under construction already is estimated at $11 billion -- triple the earlier projections and more than the bill for the Alaskan oil pipeline.
Utility rates in the Northwest are still the cheapest in the nation. In August, the cost of 500 kilowatt hours of electricity was $9.45 in Seattle and $46.72 in metropolitan New York. But rates are rising as the bill for the new systems begin to come in. Predictions are that average annual bills to home owners in Tacoma will rise from $391 in 1978 to $1,249 in 1980.
The underlying economics of the bitter regional dispute are:
The industries, homeowners and formers all want the low-cost electri-city from federal dams, now wholesaling at leass than a penny a kilowatt hour.
Nobody wants to get electricity from new nuclear plants, which some say could wholesale for 10 cents a kilowatt hour.
There is no way for the federal government to remain aloof from this quarrel.
The Bonneville Power Administration, head quartered in a building the size of a city block in Portland, is the region's dominant energy bureaucracy. s
BPA markets the power from 29 major federal dams and numerous smaller ones. These facilities generrate half the Northwest's electrical energy. BPA also controls 80 percent of the transmission lines.
Under the statute by which BPA was established in 1937, only public power districts -- where the power systems are publicly owned and run by elected members of the community -- are entitled to all the power they want. b
As long as there was surplus, BPA could sell electricity to others.
In the 1960s, for example, it signed 20-year contracts with the aluminum companies and some other industries.
It also sold power to the private utility companies.
But as the region's economy grew, as high-rise office buildings went up in Seattle and Portland and farmers made irrigated agricultural oases out of the parched valley of eastern Washington, the strains on the federal power system increased.
In 1973, BPA ended guaranteed, or "firm" power sales to the private utilities.
In 1976, it advised the aluminum companies that it could not renew their contracts in the 1980s.
And it told the public utilities that there would not be enough energy to serve even all their requirements after 1983.
In 1977, BPA still sold 30 percent of its total electricity output to the aluminum companies, 10 percent to the private utilities and 18 percent to California and other distant customers. But all the power going to private utilities and to out-of-state customers is subject to interruption. This means that those customers get it only when there is enough water in the Columbia River to run the turbines to capacity.
BPA's 1976 announcement has jeopardized the aluminum makers' access to a secure source of inexpensive power.
And it has posed the threat of a ratepayerss revolt among the customers of private utilities.
The public power movement left the Pacific Northwest of patchwork of utility districts. Most of Washington is served by public utilities, which get the full statutory benefits of a priority call on BPA's cheap power. But most of Oregon is served by private utilities that increasingly have had to blend in more expensive power from their own resources to make up for the electricity they no longer can count on from BPA.
Portlanders, served by private utility companies, pay three times as much for electricity as people in Vancouver, Wash., whose public utility gets the cheaper BPA hydroelectric power.
Pacific Power and Light, and Puget Sourd Power and Light, the area's two largest private utilities, own coal plants in Wyoming and Montana and have interest in new nuclear plants.
Unless the companies can blend in some of the cheaper federal electricity, their ratepayers will have to bear the full brunt of paying for these new systems.
The plight of the customers of the investor-owned private utilities has become one of the most contentious issues in the battle. The city of Portland has sued BPA to have it sell federal electricity on a regular basis to city customers now served by private utilities. And there has also been talk that thousands of rural and residential private utility customers in Oregon might band together to form a huge new public utility district that could lay claim to BPA "preference" power under the old statue.
The public utilities, which have been privileged up to now, also are vulnerable in the new situation. Only six of the 115 districts generate some of their own electricity -- the rest rely on BPA to be the mother-supplier.
Thus all of the players in the power struggle -- public utilities, private electric companies and the aluminum firms -- have something to lose. And the determining factor is likely to be politics.
The public utilities have on their side a broad base of grassroots political support in dozens of counties and can, if need be, evoke populist sentiment by referring to the old holy wars against the private companies.
But the electrical companies and the aluminum industry have access to all the tools of modern corporate influence: money, big law firms, lobbyists, and the right connections.
In the Pacific Northwest, power is the resource around which politics and business revolve -- much the way oil dominates the politics of Texas. Huge personal fortunes may not be made and lost over energy to the extent they are in oil -- but political careers can be.
From 1977 until now, political action committees of utility and alumimum companies have channeled campaign contributions to Northwest legislators. Pacific Power and Light came through with contritubtions for most of the region's congressional delegation. And Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) a member of the Senate Energy Committee, and Rep. Mike McCormack (D-Wash.), a strong advocate of nuclear power, were leading recipients of funds from a broad base of aluminum and utility firms.
But the acknowledged centers of the Northwest energy directorate are the offices of the two Democratic senators from Washington, Henry M. Jackson and Warren G. Magnuson.
"Scoop [Jackson] and Maggie [Magnuson] are the people you always went to to work out a regional power problem," says a utility spokesman.
The current BPA administrator, Serling Munro, is a former Jackson aide and handpicked by him.
Eric Redman, the attorney representing the aluminum and other industrial customers of BPA, once worked for Magnuson. His boss at the Seattle law firm of Preston, Thorgrimson, Ellis is Gerald Grinstein, Magnuson's former administrative assistant.
Gordon Culp, who represents the Pacific Northwest Utilities Conference Committee, or PNUCC was lawyer for the Senate Energy Committee, of which Jackson is chairman, and worked for Jackson under Munro in at least one campaign.
The city of Seattle has just hired as energy advisers Seattle attorneys James Wickwire, a former Jackson aide, and Gerald Johnson, Magnuson's aministrative assistant until this year.
Former senator Clifford Hansen and former interior secretary Stanley Hathaway are directors of Pacific Power and Light. Both men are from Wyoming, the state where the utility has major coal deposits.
Bruce McPhaden, manager of Kaiser Aluminum's Spokane operations, is a longtime Democratic Part activist and now an adviser to Gov. Dixy Lee Ray on energy policy. And former BPA administrator Henry Richmond is a director of Kaiser.
Many of these people have been involved in shaping the legislation now before the House.
The first bill, introduced by Jackson in 1977, was written largely by PNUCC. A second version, introduced the following year, was written "by BPA with the help of Jackson's staff," according to two sources.
There is no authority in the Senate bill finally passed in August for BPA to build nuclear plants, as the Tennessee Valley Authority can do. But it would enable BPA to add to its supply of available power by signing up in advance to acquire electricity from future facilities, including new nuclear plants as yet unbuilt.
Also, the private utilities would swap some 2,000 megawatts of their expensive electricity for a like amount of cheap, federal power and pass on the savings resulting from the blending of the two to their residential and rural customers.
The aluminum companies would foot the bill for this by taking the expensive electricity acquired by BPA in the swap. In return the companies would have the option of turning in their current contracts for new, longterm ones.
The formula tentatively has been backed by a fragile coalition of BPA, utilities and the aluminum companies. But whether the coalition will hold together long enough to produce a bill is questionable.
Many old-line public power advocates say the measure dilutes their old preference rights to federal power.
"People rode around this state on hourseback signing up farmers for public power," says Daniel Leahy, an energy consultant based in Wenatchee, Wash. "The tragedy is that this old institution, BPA, is going to be misused to subsidize investor-owned utilities."
The bill has also given environmentalists a bad case of nuclear jitters.
"It doesn't go in the direction of the energy future we think is best," says the Sierra Club's Doug Scott.
Here the controversy revolves around the provisionin the bill that would allow BPA to sign up to acquire the output of new nuclear plants. Critics say this amounts to a federal guarantee and that BPA could end up holding the bag for "dry holes" -- plants that are never completed because of engineering or environmental problems.
Rep. James Weaver (D-Ore.) has introduced his own bill that would allow BPA to acquire additional power only from plants that actually have been built and are working.
Both the Treasury and Justice departments have expressed objections to certain parts of the bill.
Jackson's prestige is tied up with the outcome even though his aides insist that "this is not just a Jackson bill."
The influential Public Power Council recently voted to seek amendments. It asked for a delay on House action until Dec. 7 to give it a chance to study BPA's newly released electricity allocation plan for the 1980s. This would cut private utilities out of any share in federal power, and would benefit some public power districts more than others.
Jackson has had to walk a thin line between catering to the public power forces in his home state while also pressing for a strong regional authority that could make energy policy. The public utilities have no desire to trade away their old birthright preference on the federal power. And they are wary of a regional agency that could usurp what they see as their own planning role. And some are interpreting the bill with Jackson's name on it as doing both those things.
"The timing [of the allocation plan] could not have been worse," said one of the bill's backers. "It creates a whole new set of winners and losers. And it enhances the chances of the regional civil war." NEXT: The aluminum factor.