There are not a lot of new ideas coming out of Washington, D.C., but there are a lot of dumb old ones.
I have been in this business long enough to recall the arguments of the Heritage Foundation to sell off the federal hydropower system to help reduce the deficit. This idea goes all the way back to the 1980s and the Reagan administration, which tells me two things: The proposal has dust on it, and I have been in this business far too long.
It seems that plans to sell off the Bonneville Power Administration or the other power marketing administrations are rekindled every time a Republican takes over the White House. What follows are grandiose—albeit inflated— numbers of the windfall to the U.S. Treasury.
Usually the Heritage Foundation’s plans go nowhere until Congress or the White House puts them in motion. This happened in 1994 when President Bill Clinton—a Democrat— ripped a page out of the Heritage playbook and proposed the sale of the PMAs to the current customers such as electric cooperatives. Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich then doubled-down on the idea by attempting to sell off the dams and the lakes to the highest bidder. It was a disaster for both Clinton and Gingrich.
The federal hydro projects serve multiple purposes, not just electricity for consumer-owned utilities. They often provide flood control, recreation and navigation. Unwinding the statutes governing these projects has proven to be daunting and not in the best interest of the American taxpayer. Clinton and Gingrich learned this the hard way.
Many of the people dusting off these ideas weren’t even born when they were first proposed. But that doesn’t mean that those of us who rely on the federal hydro system shouldn’t take the Heritage ideas seriously. We need to make the case to lawmakers about the merits of federal hydropower and give them a little history lesson along the way.