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Climate-induced heat waves will disrupt Western hydropower

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Climate-induced heat waves will disrupt Western hydropower

CLIMATEWIRE | When California suffers from heat, it relies heavily on hydropower from the Northwest Pacific to sustain light.

But this hydropower may not always be available when it is most needed, as climate change is changing the soil on which Western dams are located. Higher temperatures mean that snow melts earlier in the year and leaves less water to produce electricity in the deep summer. The result is an increased risk of power outages during extreme heat as a result of less hydropower availability, according to a report released this week by the North American Electricity Corporation (NERC).

The report highlights the warming paradox of the region’s global grid: as energy demand grows with rising temperatures, there may be less affordable hydropower to supply electricity, increasing the need for fossil fuels.

“In general, hydro is a low-carbon source of electricity that is needed to combat climate change,” said Steve Klemer, director of energy research at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “At the same time, it is a resource of electricity that is affected by climate change.”

According to NERC, the biggest threat to the West is a heat wave like the one that boiled over cities from Seattle to Tucson in 2020 (Energywire, May 19). Higher temperatures strain the grid because growing demand means there is less spare energy left to transport from one part of the region to another. The risk of power outages is especially acute in the early evening, when solar production begins to fall, but demand for electricity remains high.

It is against this background that hydropower becomes especially important. Recent study published in a journal The future of the Earth found that the availability of a hydroelectric plant and summer air temperatures are probably the most important factors determining electricity prices in the West in the coming decades.

“When we have heat waves that increase demand, then the loss of a hydroelectric plant becomes really important,” said Adrien Marshall, a computational hydrologist at the Colorado Mining School.

Problems vary in different parts of the West, she said. Scientists usually expect that temperate regions of the world will become wetter, and arid – drier with rising temperatures.

In the northwest, the problem is seasonal. Many dams in the region are subject to regulations that require them to manage water levels for flood protection, agricultural use and habitats of endangered species, which means that there are restrictions on how much water can be stored behind water bodies if runoff occurs earlier in year, Marshall said. . This creates problems during the summer heat when the demand for electricity grows.

The southwest is less dependent on dams to generate electricity than its northern neighbors, but is facing declining hydropower production as the region becomes drier. This has important implications for the region’s decarbonisation efforts.

“As we think about what is needed to decarbonize our grid, the hydroelectric plant is becoming particularly important and useful because it is a renewable energy source that can be turned on and off relatively quickly in response to wind and sun,” Marshall said.

“Energy emergencies” are expected this summer

The impact of having a hydroelectric plant on the climate is most evident in California, where power plant emissions increase and decrease depending on the state’s hydroelectric production.

In 2021, EPA data show that California’s greenhouse gas emissions were 37 million tonnes, the highest level since 2016. This coincided with hydropower generation, which was the lowest in the state since 2015, at 14.5 terawatt-hours of electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. . Natural gas production has declined significantly, generating 96.5 TWh of electricity, the highest figure since 2016.

According to NERC, Golden State is also heavily dependent on hydropower imports to stabilize the grid during high-demand events. During extreme peak events, total imports to California will increase to about 17.4 gigawatts, compared to 13 GW during a normal peak.

In its report, NERC pointed to an “increased risk of energy emergencies” this summer as dry conditions threaten the availability of hydropower.

“Periods of high demand in a wide area will reduce the supply of energy for transmission, as a result of which operators will rely primarily on alternative resources to balance the system, including generators and battery systems running on natural gas,” – warned NERC.

The low availability of hydropower makes California particularly vulnerable to the recent rise in natural gas prices, said Fred Hate, a senior political officer with the Northwest Energy Coalition. It also points to the need for further measures to reduce demand and coordinate electricity supplies, which will allow the region to maximize available hydropower. Other analysts said improved snow cover forecasting and monitoring would also allow the region to better predict how many hydropower plants there will be in a given year.

The good news, Hate said, is that the problem has prompted network planners in the region to think about how to keep the system up and running during extreme heat.

“You have to be prepared for the unexpected,” he said. “These are unexpected problems that we’re trying to focus on more.”

Reprinted from E&E News courtesy of POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides important news for professionals in the field of energy and the environment.

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