For decades, hydropower has played an important role in the electrical grid of the Mountain West, providing consistent carbon-free electricity. But historic drought conditions have reduced the amount of power being generated by dams along the Colorado River.
The manager of the Hoover Dam, for instance, has said that in a typical year the dam will generate around 4.5 billion kWh of electricity, but, with water levels at Lake Mead plummeting, it might generate as little as 3.5 billion kWh. Other western dams are also predicted to have reduced output, and California has warned that drought could cut its hydropower production in half this summer.
“In the Colorado River Basin, Lake Mead and Lake Powell have reached the lowest levels ever recorded. Currently Lake Mead is sitting at 29% capacity while Lake Powell is sitting at 27% capacity,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) during a recent Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing. “These lake levels put hydropower, which is critical to current and future grid reliability in the west, at risk because the water must be high enough to actually turn the turbines.”
This presents a challenge for western grid operators because hydropower has historically provided significant amounts of baseload power. In fact, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) listed drought conditions as a “heightened reliability risk” for Summer 2022.
The variability of these conditions shows the need for policymakers to embrace a holistic approach to resource management. Although hydropower has historically provided large amounts of carbon-free electricity, there is still a need for non-weather dependent generation to ensure that the millions of Americans living in western states have access to the power they need. This could mean additional installations of natural gas generators, or the use of new technology like ROTR or run-of-the-river hydropower, which does not rely on water storage.
Recently, policies from state and federal governments have prioritized investments in low-carbon generation, including wind and solar, making conventional generation projects, including natural gas and coal, comparatively more expensive. However, these generators are needed when weather—be that still or cloudy days, or drought—reduces the amount of zero emission power being generated. Additionally, maintaining the existing nuclear power fleet can help provide the capacity needed to meet demand. California, which has long sought the closure of Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, is reversing course and seeking to extend the operational life of its last operating nuclear power plant. While this would be an important step toward maintaining reliability, the existing nuclear fleet should compete with other generation sources on a level playing field and without unnecessary subsidies.
In addition to new hydro-power designs that do not require vast reservoirs, wind and solar technologies will also play an important role in the western grid of the future. In the medium to long-term, the intermittency of solar and wind power can be overcome by deploying energy storage solutions capable of capturing this renewable generation during peak production, which typically occurs during low demand periods. Investments in battery storage solutions today and next generation long-duration energy storage solutions, like hydrogen, can help overcome renewable intermittency and balance the grid over daily to seasonal needs.
The situation in the west is worrisome and shows the need to factor reliability into power planning decisions. Policies that focus exclusively on carbon emissions risk leaving millions of Americans vulnerable to sustained power outages during periods of adverse weather. However, markets can be a powerful tool to incentivize investment in generation capacity to ensure reliability.
Instead of picking winners and losers, policymakers should keep power markets open and competitive. With summer heating up, it’s more important than ever for reliability.