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Hydropower’s future is clouded by droughts, floods and climate change – it’s also essential to the US electric grid

Hydropower’s future is clouded by droughts, floods and climate change – it’s also essential to the US electric grid

People look at a partially rusting turbine set up for display outside. It's about twice the height of the tallest person in the crowd.

The water in Lake Powell, one of the nation’s largest reservoirs, has fallen so low amid the Western drought that federal officials are You can resort to emergency measuresTo avoid the Glen Canyon Dam’s hydroelectric power being shut down.

Arizona Dam, which supplies electricity to seven states, isn’t the only U.S. hydropower plant in trouble.

The iconic Hoover Dam is also located on the Colorado River. Reduced its water flow and power generation. California shut down the Oroville Dam’s hydropower plant for five months due low water levels in 2021. Officials have apologized. It is possible for the same thing to happen againIn 2022.

In the Northeast, a different kind of climate change problem has affected hydropower dams – too much rainfall all at once.

The United States has more than 2,100 operational facilities Hydroelectric damsThere are locations in almost every state. They play an important role in the regional power grids. However, most of them were built in the past century in a different climate to what they now face.

As global temperatures rise, and the climate continues its change, the competition for water will increase. The way hydropower supply in the U.S. is managed within each region and across the entire power grid will need to change. We Study the nation’s hydropower production at a systems level as engineers. Here are three key things to understand about one of the nation’s oldest sources of renewable energy in a changing climate.

Hydropower can do things other power plants can’t

Hydropower contributes 6% to 7% of total power generationIt is not available in the U.S. but it is an essential resource for managing the U.S. electrical grids.

Hydroelectric power is fast and can be switched on or off. Control minute-to-minute demand and supply changes. It can also be used to help power grids Quickly bounce backWhen blackouts happen. About 40% of the U.S. electrical grid facilities can be started using hydropower without additional power supply during blackouts. blackoutBecause the fuel used to generate power is simply water stored in the reservoir behind the turbine, this is why it works.

People look at a partially rusting turbine set up for display outside. It's about twice the height of the tallest person in the crowd.
Tourists look at an older turbine that was rebuilt at Glen Canyon Dam.
AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca

It can also be Serve as a huge batteryThe grid. The United States has more than 40 pumped Hydropower Plants. These plants pump water uphill to a reservoir and then send it through turbines that generate electricity.

Hydroelectricity is a small part of the generation mix, but these dams are essential to maintaining the U.S. power supply.

Climate change affects hydropower in different ways in different regions

Hydropower has already been reduced globally by drought Generation. How? climate change affects hydropower in the U.S. going forward will depend in large part on each plants’ location.

Hydropower potential in areas where melting snow has an impact on river flow is expected to rise in winter when more snow falls as rainfall, and then to decrease in summer when there is less snowpack. The melting of water. This pattern is expected for most of the western U.S. along with worsening multiyear dry spells that could Hydropower production has been reducedDepending on the amount Storage capacityThe reservoir has.

The Northeast faces a unique challenge. Extreme precipitation can cause flooding in the Northeast. Expected to increase. More rain can boost power generation potential. Discussions about retrofitting dams that are already in useTo produce hydropower. However, many dams are also used to control floods. This gives you the chance to produce more. EnergyThe loss of increasing rainfall could be due to water being released through an excess channel.

The southern United States has the following: Intensified drought and decreasing precipitationExpected decreases in hydropower production will result.

Grid operators face greater challenges

The effect these changes have on the nation’s power grid will depend on how each part of the grid is managed.

Agencies known as balancing authorities manage their region’s electricity supply and demand in real time.

The Bonneville Power Administration, located in the Northwest, is the largest balancing authority for hydroelectric generation. It can generate approximately 83,000 megawatt-hours annually of electricity across 59 dams, mainly in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The Grand Coulee Dam alone can produce enough power. 1.8 million homes.

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This area is a large part of the country Climate change will be experienced by those who share a similar climate.The future will likely be the same. That means that a regional drought or snowless year could hit many of the Bonneville Power Administration’s hydropower producers at the same time. Researchers have found that this region’s climate impacts on hydropower Possibilities and risksGrid operators can increase summer management challenges while also lowering winter electricity shortages.

The number of hydropower stations in each area and the balance authorities.
Lauren Dennis, CC BY ND

In the Midwest, it’s a different story. The Midcontinent Independent System Operator or MISO has 176 hydropower plant in an area that is 50% larger than Bonneville. It spans from northern Minnesota through Louisiana.

Because hydropower plants in the region are more susceptible to experiencing different climates and regional effects at various times, MISO and other similar operators can balance hydropower deficits in one location with generation in another area.

It is becoming more important to understand these regional climate effects in order to power supply planning and protect grid security, as balancing authorities work together for the lights to stay on.

More changes are coming

Climate change is not the only factor that will affect hydropower’s future. Competing demands Already in influenceWhether water is used for electricity generation or for other purposes such as irrigation and drinking.

Hydroelectricity can also be affected by laws and water allocations that change over time. The equation could also be altered by the increase in renewable energy and the possibility of using some reservoirs and dams for energy storage.

The importance of hydropower in the U.S. grid means that most dams will be around for a while, but climate change could change how these plants use and are managed.

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