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Hydropower Dips During Western Drought

The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that there will be a 14% dip in hydropower in the U.S. this year. The vast majority of that decline is in the West.

Drought reduces water and reservoir levels, which means less water to flow through hydroelectric dams.

The Bureau of Reclamation recently estimated that there’s about a one-third chance that the powerhouse that is Lake Powell in southern Utah and northern Arizona could have too little water to produce power by August of 2023.

Idaho Power, that state’s largest utility, gets about 20% of its energy from coal, about 12% from natural gas and about 11% from wind. But its largest single energy source is hydroelectricity.

Adam Richins is chief operating officer for that utility. He said even though the company gets about 40% of its energy from hydropower, they plan for droughts. In the short term, they can pull from sources like wind and solar and the batteries connected to them.

“We will tie lithium-ion batteries, large batteries, to those resources,” he said, which will collect energy when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining.

Richins added that transmission lines are also key so they can pull from energy sources in other states where more wind might be blowing. Idaho Power currently has a few projects underway to run lines, including one going into the Pacific Northwest and one going to Wyoming, though transmission lines often face pushback and permitting and construction take years.

Still, Richins said leaning on other sources of energy isn’t ideal because hydropower alone is so stable and affordable. He’s confident in reservoirs for now since they can store so much water and release it to generate energy at set times, but severe droughts are expected to become more common with climate change.

Projections from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that even if areas get average rain and snow amounts, more heat will melt and evaporate the moisture more quickly.

Richins said if increasing droughts keep affecting hydropower, he expects utilities around the West will keep branching out to new wind and solar projects, batteries, transmission lines and possibly even nuclear energy.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.
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