Bonneville Basics

  1. What is BPA?
  2. Where are the federal dams located?
  3. Does BPA sell power from other sources?
  4. Who are BPA’s customers for power?
  5. Who runs BPA?
  6. Does BPA depend on appropriations from Congress?
  7. How big is BPA’s budget?
  8. How much debt does BPA have?
  9. When was BPA created?
  10. Does BPA have responsibility for helping restore salmon runs?
  11. Does BPA also have responsibility to fund energy efficiency?

1. What is the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA)?

BPA is a federal power marketing agency in Portland, Oregon. Click here to go to BPA’s home page.

BPA is part of the U.S. Department of Energy, and is responsible for selling and delivering electricity from 31 federal dams in the Pacific Northwest and other sources. BPA supplies 30% of all the power consumed in the region.

About 12.5 million people live in BPA’s service territory, which includes Washington, Oregon, Idaho and western Montana, as well as small parts of Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and northern California. Click here to review basic facts about BPA.

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2. Where are the federal dams located?

The federal dams are scattered throughout the Pacific Northwest, but the biggest dams, like Grand Coulee, are on the main stem of the Columbia River. The dams and related infrastructure are called the “Federal Columbia River Power System.” Click here for more information about the major federal dams in the region.

The federal dams were built and -- are owned to this day -- by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation or the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. What BPA does is to sell and deliver power to utilities and other customers. BPA is the “marketer” of the electricity.

To deliver the power, BPA owns and maintains 75% of the high-voltage transmission lines in the Pacific Northwest, equivalent to 15,212 miles. BPA also owns transmission lines connecting the Pacific Northwest with Canada, California and the desert Southwest. BPA’s network of transmission lines is its most valuable asset and allows BPA to move electricity 24 hours a day up and down the West Coast. BPA sets power and transmission rates to recover the capital cost, operation and maintenance and debt to build the dams and transmission lines, as spelled out in the Northwest Power Act of 1980 and other federal laws.

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3. Does BPA sell power from other sources?

Yes. BPA has the responsibility to market power from a nuclear power plant at Hanford, Washington, owned by Energy Northwest (formerly the Washington Public Power Supply System). BPA also has signed contracts to market power from several wind power plants and other renewable sources. But these are relatively small parts of BPA’s portfolio. About 85% of BPA’s electricity comes from the network of federal dams in the Columbia River basin. For an interactive map of all power plants in the Pacific Northwest,
click here. www.nwcouncil.org/maps/power/Default.asp

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4. Who are BPA’s customers for power?

BPA has three customer groups in the Pacific Northwest:

Public power. The largest group of customers are the 125 “public power” utilities in the region who by law have “preference and priority” to federal power. These utilities include large municipal utilities -- such as Seattle City Light and Tacoma Power in Washington, and the Eugene Water and Electric Board in Oregon -- as well as county-wide public agencies like the Snohomish County Public Utility District in Everett, Washington. Rural electric cooperatives also have preference to BPA power. Public power utilities are non-profit entities and sell power at cost to their retail customers. Click here to go the web site for the Public Power Council, a trade association which represents most of the public power utilities in the region.

Private power. BPA also provides cash payments to six “private power” companies for their residential and small-farm customers: Avista; Idaho Power Co.; NorthWestern Energy; PacifiCorp; Portland General Electric; and Puget Sound Energy. BPA can also sell power to the companies under certain conditions. The companies are owned by investors and are for-profit entities.

Select industries. For years, BPA sold power to select industries known as the Direct Service Industries (“DSIs”), primarily aluminum companies. The number of operating aluminum smelters has declined over the years and now consists of only one aluminum plant owned by Alcoa in Washington. The other DSI in the region is a small pulp and paper mill in Port Townsend, Washington.

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5. Who runs BPA?

BPA is run by an “Administrator” appointed by the U.S. Secretary of Energy. The Administrator is responsible for managing BPA’s 3,100 employees.

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6. Does BPA depend on appropriations from Congress?

No. BPA is quite unusual in that regard. BPA is a “self-financing agency,” meaning that it sets its rates for power and transmission to recover its total costs, including its debts.

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7. How big is BPA’s budget?

About $3.4 billion per year.

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8. How much debt does BPA have?

BPA’s debts total about $15 billion, including obligations to the U.S. Treasury for money that BPA borrowed over the years. BPA repays a portion of the principal with interest each year.

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9. When was BPA created?

In 1937. Congress established BPA as an interim agency just as work on Bonneville Dam east of Portland was nearing completion by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. BPA’s duties and responsibilities under federal law have grown steadily over the years.

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10. Does BPA have responsibility for helping restore salmon runs?

Yes. Under the Northwest Power Act of 1980, BPA was given responsibility to pay for fish and wildlife programs in the Columbia River Basin. To date, BPA has spent about $13 billion on these efforts.

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11. Does BPA also have responsibility to fund energy efficiency?

Yes. Under the Northwest Power Act of 1980, BPA was also given responsibility to pay for and encourage conservation in the region. BPA has spent about $3 billion on energy efficiency in the region since then.

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