Inside Clean Energy: Drought is causing a tough year for hydropower in the United States. Is this a sign of long-term change?



When something reliable starts to seem fragile, we have to take that into account. This is happening with hydroelectric power in much of the West, where a severe drought has resulted in low water levels in the rivers and reservoirs that power the electrical systems.

The Energy Information Administration predicts a 13.9% decrease in hydropower production this year compared to 2020, as part of a larger picture in which renewables, which include hydropower, are not thriving as well. quickly that scientists say it is necessary to avoid the worst effects of the climate. cash.

I wanted to know if the drop in hydropower was a sign of a long-term shift that could be detrimental to the transition to clean energy.

Before I get to what I found, here are some details:

  • Water levels in Lake Powell, on the Utah-Arizona border, have fallen so low that the Federal Bureau of Reclamation has warned it may not be able to operate the dam’s power plant of Glen Canyon, which holds back the Colorado River to form the Lake, starting in 2022. The lake hit its lowest level on record this summer amid persistent drought in the Colorado River Basin. The power station, with a generating capacity of approximately 1,320 megawatts, is an important part of the regional grid.
  • Authorities in California decommissioned the Edward Hyatt hydropower plant in August due to low water levels in Lake Oroville. The plant has a generation capacity of approximately 645 megawatts. “This is just one of the many unprecedented impacts we are experiencing in California as a result of our climate-induced drought,” Karla Nemeth, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said in a statement.
  • Washington, the national hydropower leader, saw an 11% drop in electricity produced from hydropower this year, through July, compared to the same period last year, according to the EIA. That’s a significant drop, but the state is faring better than others in the West, like California, where hydropower production is down 38%.

Hydroelectricity, which is generated by water spinning the blades of a turbine, accounted for 7.3% of the electricity produced in the United States last year, a figure that ranks just behind wind and ahead of solar, among the main sources of renewable energy. And five states (Washington, Idaho, Vermont, Oregon and South Dakota) generated at least half of their electricity from hydroelectric dams last year.

A drop in hydropower is bad for the climate as fossil fuel power plants are likely to take much of the slack. But hydropower has its own environmental problems. The construction of dams has led to flooding and destruction of ecosystems, and there is debate among environmentalists as to the extent to which hydropower should be called “clean energy.”

The nation’s hydroelectric dam park includes the oldest operating power plant in the United States (Whiting Dam in Wisconsin, built in 1891) and the largest all-tech power plant in the United States in terms of capacity. production (Grand Coulee dam in Washington, with a capacity of approximately 6,800 megawatts).

While the drop in hydropower this year may be alarming, it remains within what happened recently. If the EIA forecast comes true, the 13.9% drop in hydropower production this year would be lower than the 14.4% drop recorded in 2007 and close to the 13.5% drop recorded in 2012.

The EIA’s forecast, which is part of its short-term energy outlook, projects that hydropower will generate 250,680 gigawatts of electricity in 2021, the fourth lowest level since 2001. The forecast also includes 2022 and calls for a slight rebound to 267,230 gigawatts next year, the eighth lowest level since 2001. These numbers are low, but not catastrophically low.

But there’s a bigger question to ask: Could the drop in hydropower production in 2021 be a sign that this power source is declining and increasingly unreliable? The urgency is magnified by the fact that, according to some scientists, the West is in a “mega-drought” that could last for decades.

To answer the question, I went to see some of the experts at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington.

“Precipitation in the West can vary widely from year to year, and sometimes dry years follow one another, resulting in a continuous drawdown of the reservoir and possibly a reduction in output from water-dependent hydroelectric plants. stored, ”said Sean Turner, a water resources modeler at the lab. “So the region’s natural climate creates good and bad years for hydropower production. “

We are clearly in a bad year. But he can’t say for sure whether bad years are likely to become more frequent because of climate change.

Nathalie Voisin, a water resources engineer at the lab, said climate projections are consistent with temperatures rising but are less certain of what will happen to precipitation levels. This is an important point in trying to get an idea of ​​what the future holds for hydropower.

When hydropower plants produce less electricity, utilities and grid operators must turn to other sources, which could include energy from fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables, Voisin said.

“This results in higher operating costs for utilities,” she said.

Keep environmental journalism alive

ICN provides free, ad-free, localized, award-winning climate coverage. We count on donations from readers like you to continue.

Donate now

You will be redirected to ICN’s donation partner.

As to the possibility that the West is in a decades-long drought, Voisin said the current drought is clearly exceptional, but “not sure we can speak of a mega-drought yet.”

The result is that there are reasons to be concerned about the decline in hydropower this year and the wider effects of drought on crops and living conditions in the West.

But it would be premature, at least for now, to make broad statements about how hydropower is heading into a multi-year decline and becoming less reliable.

Other testimonials on the energy transition to remember this week:

Conservationists ask Kyrsten Sinema “Which side are you on?” “: Congress failed to make progress last week on a massive spending bill that would include new programs to tackle climate change. One of the main reasons for inaction was that Democrats need their 50 votes in the Senate, and their senses. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) and Joe Manchin (DW.Va.) are reluctant to lend their support. My colleague Judy Fahys reports on the reaction to Sinema’s position from some of her constituents and conservationists. “If she doesn’t support strong climate policy, then she’s definitely out of step with the people of Arizona,” said Sandy Bahr, executive director of the Grand Canyon section of the Sierra Club.

Rivian goes public and reveals financial losses: Rivian, the electric truck maker, has filed an application to begin selling its shares to the public, a process that involves the disclosure of the company’s plans and finances. Rivian has received rave reviews for its first truck, the R1-T, but the company is racking up financial losses as well, with the record showing a net loss of $ 994 million in the first six months of 2021, as reported by Lora Kolodny. and Jordan Novet. for CNBC. People often note Rivian’s similarities to Tesla, but Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic suggested other comparisons: “he writes.” Or it might sound like Patagonia, a premium brand that represents the quality of an expedition, yes, but aimed at a smaller, more cosmopolitan segment of society. “

Tesla announces record sales: While novice builders aim to challenge Tesla, the king of electric vehicles continues to perform well. Tesla said last week it delivered 241,300 vehicles to customers in the previous quarter, a new record. The results far exceeded analysts’ expectations and came against a backdrop where other automakers are struggling to cope with supply chain issues that have led to parts shortages, as Dana Hull reports for Bloomberg.

Federal regulators allow the network’s largest region to largely abandon the policy that cancels state subsidies: With a tie-vote, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allowed the country’s largest grid region to drop rules that sought to reverse the effects of state subsidies for nuclear and renewable energy. FERC found itself in a 2-2 deadlock last week in a vote on the proposal from network operator PJM Interconnection, which serves an area stretching from New Jersey to Illinois. The tie vote means PJM can move forward with its plan, which is to give states leeway to subsidize certain types of power plants. Under the Trump administration, FERC voted to demand that PJM change its rules to reverse the effects of state subsidies. As I wrote in 2019, the rule changes were good for fossil fuel power plants that typically don’t receive state subsidies. But the new policy barely had a chance to take effect before the Biden administration came up with a very different approach to managing electricity markets. Ethan Howland of Utility Dive reports on the last vote and what led to it.

Inside Clean Energy is ICN’s weekly newsletter and analysis on the energy transition. Send tips and questions to [email protected]


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.