The drought facing much of the American West is hurting the region’s ability to generate electricity by throttling the water flowing through hydroelectric power plants, reports Michael Phillis for the Associated Press. A new report from the Energy Information Administration projects that because of the severe drought, hydropower generation will decline by nearly 14 percent in 2021 compared to 2020.
California had to shut down Oroville Lake’s Hyatt Power Plant in August when water levels dropped too low. At Lake Powell, a massive reservoir on the Utah-Arizona border, water levels have plunged so low that the United States Bureau of Reclamation projects that the lake may no longer have enough water to generate electricity by 2023 if drought conditions persist, reports Dan Gearino for Inside Climate News. Losing Lake Powell’s Glen Canyon Dam would require utility companies to find a new way to get electricity to the 5.8 million customers the dam currently supplies with power.
Hydropower generation produces 7.3 percent of U.S. electricity. When that power supply falls short, states are likely to make up the difference by burning fossil fuels that exacerbate climate change, per Inside Climate.
For example, California’s hydropower has declined 38 percent compared to 2020 and in response, the state is expected to boost natural gas power by 7 percent, the AP reports. In the Pacific Northwest, the hydropower shortfall is predicted to increase coal power generation by 12 percent.
Given all this, Inside Climate’s Gearino poses the question of whether this means hydropower is becoming a less reliable power source as the U.S. tries to transition to using more renewable energy.
Unsatisfyingly, the answer appears to be that we don’t yet know. While temperatures are assuredly rising, the climate change–driven changes in precipitation will vary significantly by region.
But when severe drought and extreme heat collide, as they have this year, states like California that rely heavily on hydropower can be forced to buy extra power to meet demand, which tends to spike when temperatures soar, per the AP.
Still, this year’s drop in hydropower generation is not without precedent. Per Inside Climate, 2007 saw a 14.4 percent drop and in 2012 hydropower generation fell by 13.5 percent. But the fluctuations highlight the ways in which the extremes brought about by climate change are stressing human infrastructure and creating added challenges when it comes to phasing out fossil fuels.