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Extreme Weather is Weakening U.S. Hydropower and Stressing Energy Grids

Scorching temperatures are baking the American Southwest this Labor Day weekend. And amid a nearby pool parties and backyard barbeques, residents are wondering exactly what will break first: heat, or their power.

Extreme, prolonged heat waves strain electric grids because everyone cranks their power-slurping ac units simultaneously, driving up energy demand. Meanwhile, coal, gas, and nuclear power plants run less efficiently and also have less capacity when temperatures are high. Any risk of strain on the electric grid this weekend is indeed worrying that the California Independent System Operator (ISO), which oversees the states power system, is asking residents never to charge electric vehicles, to create thermostats to 78F or more, also to reduce overall energy use. The target, it says, would be to prevent energy shortages.

A very important factor thats definitely not helping this example may be the regions vanishing hydropower, making up nearly 25 % of the regions electric generation. As the whole Western U.S. is experiencing dry conditions, the Southwest, and California specifically, is experiencing a two-decade megadrought which has severely crimped the states hydroelectric sources. Because the below chart shows, hydropower has dropped from about 15%-20% of Californias electricity in the first 2000s to only 7.5% this past year.

Hydropower is generated by dammed reservoirs, so when the reservoirs fall below a threshold, the plant can’t generate power. This may exacerbate the strain on the power grid during extreme weather. If youre in the center of an awful drought and you also have way less hydropower than normal, that means it is harder to meet up demand, says Jordan Kern, an assistant professor in the faculty of Natural Resources at NEW YORK State University. But usually system operators have replacements. Theres likely to be electricity thats produced at gas plants. Its dirtier, its more costly, nonetheless it keeps the lights on.

Read more: The Colorado River Drought Is really a Cautionary Climate Tale

In California, solar along with other renewable sources took off within the last decade, filling hydropowers generation void. But renewables dont have all of the great things about hydropower. A 2021 Department of Energy (DOE) report discovered that hydropower is really a key contributor to overall grid reliability since it operates all the time of your day and may offer larger and longer-term storage than batteries. Whats more, hydropower can very rapidly reboot the energy grid following a blackout.

A 2019 DOE analysis discovered that hydropowerdespite being only 10% of the countrys total generating capacityprovides about 40% of the countrys so-called black start resources that jump-start grid transmission and help activate other generators following an outage. Solar photovoltaic and wind turbines, the report found, can’t be relied upon to provide by doing so.

A U.S. government map of the U.S. from late August, 2022, showing extreme and exceptional drought conditions in the Western 1 / 2 of the united states.

Drought.gov

Due to dry conditions that threaten the option of hydropower, the UNITED STATES Electric Reliability Corporation said in-may, all U.S. areas which are section of the Western grid system are in threat of energy emergencies. That grid serves 80 million people across 14 states, two Canadian provinces, and a little section of northern Mexico.

Last summer, Lake Oroville, the next largest reservoir in California, fell to minimum levels necessary for hydropower, forcing the Hyatt Power Plant to avoid running. It had been the very first time that happened because the plant became operational in 1967. What happened there might eventually other major reservoirs in the coming years. Theres a 10% chance that Lake Powell could fall below operational levels the moment next year, and a 30% chance by 2024, in accordance with August projections from the Bureau of Reclamation. That reservoir straddles Arizona and Utah, holding water for Glen Canyon Dam, and typically supplies capacity to customers across Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Nebraska. At this time it is no more than 25% fullits lowest-ever level because it was initially filled.

Read more: Chinas Extreme Drought Is Pushing the united states to Rely A LOT MORE on Coal

Lake Mead, another massive reservoir that sits further down the Colorado River system on the Nevada-Arizona border, is 28% full. Based on the same Bureau of Reclamation projections, theres a 23% chance its levels drop to at least one 1,000 feet by 2024, and a 7% chance they drop to 950 feet by 2026the point where water will be too low to flow through the Hoover Dams pipes that intake water from the reservoir. The Hoover Dams power, that is enough to serve 1.3 million people, is allocated mostly to California, but additionally Nevada and Arizona. They could stop having the ability to produce electricity, says Kern of both iconic dam structures. That’s something that folks are increasingly worried about.

The below chart shows water levels over the Western reservoirs. Notably, Lake Mead and Lake Powell are significantly below full and in addition well below where theyve been because of this season, predicated on a 30-year average, but numerous others come in similar conditions.

As summers grow longer and hotter because of climate change, the U.S. grid can be more stressed. And in lots of states, losing hydropower means relying more on fossil fuels, which are adding to climate change and worsening the dry conditionsa vicious, paradoxical cycle.

Other countries suffering from drought come in an identical boat. Dry conditions in Sichuan Province, China, for instance, have hampered hydropower generationaccounting for 80% of the regions electricityand caused blackouts. Similar power strains have occurred across Europe come early july, where low water levels have reduced hydropower, alongside rendering it harder to cool nuclear reactors, and transport coal on rivers.

But conditions arent that dire in the U.S. this season. And experts like Jack Schmidt, director of the guts for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University, believes that hydropower shouldnt function as focus of the wider drought problem. His perspective is that the united states will find methods to fill the power gaps. But theres no easy solution if normal water and irrigation water for agriculture are scarce.

Water supply is more important than energy, Schmidt says. Thats not saying the energy isnt important. Hoover Dams power is essential. But American society doesnt crumble if we lose it. Its not the same as losing water.

E mail us at letters@time.com.

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