Hydropower and drought: Obstacles to the clean energy transition

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Hydropower and drought: Obstacles to the clean energy transition

Hydropower and drought: Obstacles to the clean energy transition

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New research suggests that hydropower in the United States may decline 14 percent in 2022, compared to 2021 levels, as drought and dry conditions persist.
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      Quantumrun Foresight
    • August 5, 2022

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    As the hydroelectric dam industry tries to strengthen its position as a climate change-friendly energy solution, an increasing body of evidence shows that climate change is undermining the ability of hydro dams to produce energy. This challenge is being faced globally, but this report will focus on the US experience.

    Hydropower and drought context

    The drought affecting the western United States (US) has reduced the region's capacity to create hydroelectric energy because of the reduced amount of water flowing through hydroelectric power facilities, based on 2022 media reports by the Associated Press. According to a recent Energy Information Administration assessment, hydropower output fell by about 14 percent in 2021 from 2020's levels due to severe drought in the region.

    For example, when Oroville Lake's water levels became dangerously low, California shut down the Hyatt Power Plant in August 2021. Likewise, Lake Powell, a vast reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border, has suffered from a drop in water level. According to Inside Climate News, the lake's water levels were so low in October 2021 that the US Bureau of Reclamation forecasted that the lake may no longer have enough water to generate power by 2023 if drought conditions persisted. If Lake Powell's Glen Canyon Dam were to be lost, utility companies would have to find new ways to supply energy to the 5.8 million consumers that Lake Powell and other linked dams serve.

    Since 2020, hydropower availability in California has declined by 38 percent, with declining hydropower supplemented by increased gas power output. Hydropower storage has fallen by 12 percent in the pacific northwest over the same period, with coal power generation expected to replace lost hydropower in the short term. 

    Disruptive impact

    Hydropower has been a leading alternative to fossil fuels for decades. However, the decline in available hydroelectric power worldwide may force state, regional, or national power authorities to return to fossil fuels to plug short-term energy supply gaps while renewable power infrastructure matures. As a result, climate change commitments may be undermined, and commodity prices could rise if an energy supply crunch develops, further increasing the cost of living worldwide.

    As hydropower faces growing reliability problems due to climate change, financing may represent another significant challenge due to the large amount of capital needed to construct these facilities. Governments may consider future investments into hydropower a misallocation of finite resources and instead support short-term fossil fuel projects, nuclear power, and increased solar and wind energy infrastructure construction. Other energy sectors receiving increased funding may lead to jobs being created in these industries, which could benefit workers living near significant construction sites. Governments may also consider cloud-seeding technology to support hydroelectric facilities and end related drought conditions. 

    Implications of climate change threatening the viability of hydroelectric dams

    Wider implications of hydropower becoming unviable due to persistent droughts may include:

    • Governments limiting funding to construct new hydroelectric power plants.
    • Other forms of renewable energy receiving increased investment support from the government and the private energy industry.
    • Increased short-term reliance on fossil fuels, undermining national climate change commitments.
    • Local communities surrounding hydro dams increasingly having to live with energy rationing programs.
    • Further public awareness and support for environmental action as empty lakes and decommissioned hydro dams represent a very visual example of the effects of climate change.

    Questions to comment on

    • Can humanity develop ways to counter the effects of drought or produce rainfall? 
    • Do you believe hydroelectric dams may become a defunct form of energy production in the future?

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