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Hydropower is drying up in the West. Here’s why it could lead to higher energy costs

California’s Lake Oroville, one of the Golden State’s major producers of hydropower, is already expected to come offline in August because of severe drought

The dry banks of Lake Oroville.
Dry banks rise above water in Lake Oroville on Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Oroville, Calif. At left are trees scorched in the 2020 North Complex Fire.
Noah Berger, Associated Press

As the West bakes under record temperatures and drought, the lack of water in the region’s lakes and rivers are drying up the West’s ability to manufacture hydropower.

Lower than normal winter snowpack has led to less water literally flowing downstream, which ultimately means there is less water to spin electricity creating turbines at hydroelectric power stations, The Wall Street Journal reported.

  • In California, the Department of Water Resources predicts that its eight hydroelectric facilities will generate around 30% of their average power output, according to The Wall Street Journal.
  • The Sacramento Bee reported that California’s Lake Oroville, one of the state’s largest producers of hydropower, is already projected “to go completely offline in August because of low water levels in the reservoir.”
  • And although hydroelectricity made up less than 20% of California’s electricity profile in 2019, the Golden State needs all the power it can manufacture as demand for electricity increases alongside higher temperatures, the Journal reported.

The vicious circle of drought and energy consumption

In a June Q&A published by North Carolina State University, forestry and environmental resources professor Jordan Kern explained how hot weather — like the current heat wave baking the West — can create even more energy problems during a drought.

  • “The most direct impact of hydrologic drought on the power sector is a loss of hydropower,” Kern said. “The less it snows, the less water there is behind hydroelectric dams, and the less ‘fuel’ there is for producing hydropower.”
  • “In addition, if drought years are associated with higher air temperatures (this is sometimes the case out West), those higher temperatures can simultaneously increase people’s demand for electricity for cooling (air conditioning),” he further explained in the Q&A published on the University’s College of Natural Resources website.
  • “Low water may also impact demand for electricity in other sectors, including how much pumping energy is used to move water from one place to another and/or irrigate crops,” Kern added.

The ebbs and flows of power and energy prices

In the United States, California has the second-most capacity for hydroelectric generation, according to the U.S. Energy and Information Administration. But, capacity is reliant upon water, and as water levels in California — like a lot of the West — have fluctuated, so have its ability to produce hydropower.

  • “In 2015, because of prolonged drought, hydropower supplied only about 7% of California’s utility-scale net generation,” the EIA reported.
  • “Hydropower’s share has rebounded with increased precipitation, and, in 2019, it provided 19% of the state’s electricity net generation,” according to the EIA.

As California’s ability to produce hydropower has ebbed and flowed with drought, so have energy prices in the state.

  • In May, Reuters reported that natural gas prices in “northern California were trading around $4.32 per million British thermal units (mmBtu) for the balance of 2021,” much higher than the previous five-year average of $3.16.
  • In 2014, during California’s most recent severe drought, natural gas there traded at $4.87, according to Reuters.