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There are concerns about the future of hydropower in the U.S. Here's why

The ongoing drought across the western United States has led to concerns about the future of hydropower. As reservoirs see water levels drop, officials worry about electricity generation being reduced, as well.

This is an issue Syris Valentine  has written about. Valentine is the climate solutions fellow with Grist Magazine. He joined The Show to talk about what he’s learned.

Full conversation

MARK BRODIE: Let's start with a sort of lay of the land. What is the current state of the water levels behind hydroelectric facilities across the West?

SYRIS VALENTINE: Yeah, that's a really, it's kind of a difficult question to answer because one of the things that came up as I was, you know, reading and reporting on this story, is that like when we're talking about, you know, the Western United States, it's so varied. You know, there's California, there's Arizona and Nevada and then the Pacific Northwest also being very different in terms of like, I guess the Pacific Northwest that have the best context for that. Water levels there right now are roughly about about what they were at the same time last year, in 2023. So I think they're about like 82% of, I believe what I heard from the Bonneville Power Association about their sort of like relative capacity of what, you know, is expected to like 100%. You know, the ideal scenario outside of that, I don't know particularly well. I mean, I know in California, right there were a series of atmospheric rivers and so that state got a lot of rain and snow pack recently. But outside of that, I'm not quite sure.

BRODIE: How big of a concern is it that in certain places, water levels could fall enough where hydropower really becomes nonfunctional?

VALENTINE: It's such a difficult thing to say because it is so, so varied as I mentioned a little bit ago. I think right now, and I guess the Pacific Northwest, which is, you know, basically going into its second year of drought. As far as like hydro goes, like hydro more, more than likely will continue to be able to function reliably throughout the year, even as we're sort of gearing up towards this. Because there's been a couple of studies that found that even in, you know, instances of drought, hydro is nonetheless a reliable form of power, even in those cases where it's just, it's operating in no less than about 80% capacity and typically doesn't dip below that well.

BRODIE: So how reliant is the rest of the country on hydropower produced in the West? Like how, how big of a percentage of the overall pie comes from this part of the country?

VALENTINE: The West itself is like, it's hugely dependent on it, especially in the Pacific Northwest and Washington and Oregon. Like Washington alone generates around 25% of the nation's overall hydropower capacity. But I don't know to what degree other states like rely on that, but certainly this region relies on it.

BRODIE: So if hydropower isn't able to be used, like if the water levels were to, to fall low enough that, you know, it makes those, those facilities non-operational, what gets filled in? Like, is it another form of clean energy that would get filled in or is it, is it sort of a fossil fuel situation we're looking at?

VALENTINE: Yeah. So I guess let's just clarify before I answer that question, just because like it, we, it's very rare that we will reach a case where you're having a quote unquote dead pool scenario, where you're not generating hydropower capacity. I mean, that's something that folks are actively looking into. Like, what's the likelihood that that will happen in certain reservoirs. So far, that hasn't yet been the case in the vast majority of your actual hydroelectric dams. That being said, when there are situations like this year and last year, where you do have shortfalls in the ability for those dams and reservoirs to generate electricity at the same level that they do in other years, there is nonetheless the need to sort of fill that gap.

And while in an ideal scenario, you know, we would be filling that gap with solar or wind power, the sort of economics of energy is such that those two sources of energy, those, those prime renewables like solar and wind, are going to the grid first because they are by far the cheapest forms of energy. And then hydro typically comes in after that. And then the last sort of sources of energy come from your gas plants and coal and whatnot. And so when there are hydropower shortfalls, pretty much all of, of the solar and wind that can be generated, it is already generating. And so that means typically methane or natural gas plants are what comes on next, which means there is this then commensurate rise in emissions when there are hydropower shortfalls.

BRODIE: Well, so do you get the sense or have folks talked to you about the fact that like, are there hydrologists, are there maybe energy experts looking into whether or not hydropower is something that you know, we will continue to be able to use in in large numbers going forward? As, you know, the the model suggests the climate is going to get hotter and drier, especially in places like Arizona, is hydropower sustainable going forward? Like is it something we're going to be able to continue to use in into the future?

VALENTINE: Yeah, for Arizona, in particular, it's a really tricky case. From the data that I saw, Arizona is not hugely reliable on hydro right now. I mean, it, it is one of the more hydro heavy states if you will like, it generates more than some places in like the Northeast, for instance. But Arizona has had a huge surge in like solar power generation recently, actually. And so going forward, I think places especially in like the Southwest, like Arizona and whatnot, are going to be less dependent on hydro and will be able to then rely on solar and wind, even when we have solar and wind coming online, like it is in Arizona and California, and in very like dramatic numbers, honestly, there are obviously still gonna be those periods where you're not generating the full capacity that those solar farms are capable of. And in those instances, hydro does still have a very important role to play as a quote unquote peaker plant, where it's able to sort of meet peak demand if there is not as much sun as being expected, especially when you're getting into, you know, the evening, nighttime hours, where people are going to be, you know, charging the EVs that are becoming more and more popular and being adopted across the nation. And in those instances, hydro has a very important role to play, because if you're not having hydropower as your peaker, then you're going to be having natural gas peaking.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.