The decline in hydropower puts strain on the electricity grid during drought – NBC Los Angeles

After the water levels of a California dam fell to historic lows this summer, the main hydroelectric plant that feeds it was shut down. At Nevada’s Hoover Dam – one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the country – production has decreased by 25%. If the extreme drought continues, an Arizona dam could halt electricity production in the coming years, federal officials say.

A severe drought in the west this year drained reservoirs, reduced hydropower production and further strained the region’s power grids. And since extreme weather conditions become more common with climate change, network operators adapt to fluctuations in hydropower generation.

This map shows drought conditions in the western United States in early October 2021.

“The challenge is to find the right resource or mix of resources that can deliver the same amount of energy and electricity as hydropower,” said Lindsay Buckley, spokeswoman for the California Energy Commission.

According to a recent federal forecast, US hydropower generation is expected to decline 14% this year from 2020. The projected decline is concentrated in western states that are more reliant on hydropower, with California production expected to decrease by nearly half.

The cuts make grid operations more difficult, as hydropower is a relatively flexible renewable energy source that experts say can easily be turned on or off, for example in the evening when the sun goes down and solar power production drops.

“Hydro is a big part of the plan for the whole system to work together,” said Severin Borenstein, a renewable energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley and a board member of the California Independent System Operator, who manages the state’s power grid.

Borenstein noted that hydropower is important as the state works to expand its power storage options, including installing batteries that can provide energy when it is needed.

Ben Kujala of the Northwest Power and Conservation Council, who does energy planning for the Columbia River basin, also noted that grid operators have been adjusting their use of hydropower in recent years to ensure it complements solar and wind power .

Power grids that connect western regions can also help. While California can face perennial dry spells, the Pacific Northwest usually receives enough rainfall during winter to recover and produce hydropower for export.

However, this year the northwest was also hit by extreme heat and less rainfall, according to Crystal Raymond, a climatologist at the University of Washington. While energy planners take into account years of drought, Raymond said climate change could further reduce snowmelt in mountains that fill reservoirs in spring in the long run.

In August, California officials closed the Edward Hyatt hydropower plant for the first time in its 60-year history after the water level at Lake Oroville fell to historic lows. The facility can produce enough electricity for up to 750,000 households, but it usually operates at lower levels.

The drought is wreaking havoc on Big Bear Lake. Lake level is more than 15 feet below full capacity with the main problem being the lack of rain. Tony Shin will be on NBC4 News on September 29, 2021 at 5 p.m.

At Lake Powell on the Arizona-Utah border, federal officials recently said there is a 34% chance that Glen Canyon Dam will be unable to produce electricity at some point in 2023, up from a 3% chance for the next year if extreme Drought persists.

California’s decline in hydropower production that summer coincided with heat waves, forcing the state to buy additional electricity. To prevent outages in late September, state officials said they would deploy temporary emergency power generators.

“The drought has made it even more difficult to meet demand,” said Jordan Kern, an expert on energy and water systems at North Carolina State University.

In some northwestern states, hydropower production has returned to normal levels after falling just below its 10-year range earlier this year. California’s hydropower levels remained at the lower end of the state’s 10-year range through June. According to federal projections, much of the west is likely to remain affected by droughts through the end of the year.

Declines in hydropower production mean production losses from other energy sources. Federal projections predict that natural gas power will grow 7% in California and 6% in the northwest this year. In the northwest, coal production is forecast to increase by 12%.

The California Air Resources Board says the state has been able to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector despite the volatility in hydropower generation in recent years.

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