The ongoing severe drought in the western U.S. has led to low water levels in the rivers and reservoirs that feed hydroelectric power systems. The Energy Information Administration is projecting a 13.9% decrease in hydroelectric generation this year compared to 2020.
Water levels in Lake Powell have fallen so low that it may not be possible to operate the power plant at Glen Canyon Dam starting as soon as 2022. California officials took the Edward Hyatt hydroelectric plant offline in August because of low water levels on Lake Oroville. Washington, the state with the most hydroelectric power generation, has seen an 11% drop in electricity generated to date this year as compared to last year. That state is actually doing better than others in the West, such as California, where hydro generation is down 38%.
Hydropower accounts for over 7% of the electricity generated in the United States. Five states – Washington, Idaho, Vermont, Oregon, and South Dakota – generate at least half of their electricity from hydroelectric dams.
The current decrease in hydropower is alarming, but it is not unprecedented. The more significant question is whether the drop in generation this year is a sign that this power source is declining and becoming less reliable. According to some scientists, the West is in a “megadrought” that could last for decades.
The greater concern is whether the bad years are likely to become more common because of climate change. Climate projections agree that temperatures will continue to rise, but what will happen to precipitation levels in specific places is much less certain. That is what will determine what the future holds for hydroelectric power.
Inside Clean Energy: Drought is Causing U.S. Hydropower to Have a Rough Year. Is This a Sign of a Long-Term Shift?
Photo, posted May 7, 2014, courtesy of Tyler Bell via Flickr.
Earth Wise is a production of WAMC Northeast Public Radio.