Senior decision-makers come together to connect around strategies and business trends affecting utilities.


Drought and The Billion Dollar Hydropower Question

image credit: Photo 111227731 © Liia Galimzianova |
Nevelyn Black's picture
Writer, Independent

Nevelyn Black is an independent writer with a background in broadcast and a keen interest in renewable energy.  In the last few years, she transitioned from celebrity interviews and film shoots...

  • Member since 2017
  • 878 items added with 508,624 views
  • May 24, 2022

In an effort to reach the company’s goal of delivering 100% carbon-free power by 2050, Xcel energy aims to build a pumped-storage hydropower (PSH) plant to serve it’s 1.5 million Colorado customers.  One location they’re considering has Colorado natives restless.  The Unaweep Canyon south of Grand Junction is considered to be the only canyon in the world that has two exits.  Scientists for decades have studied the puzzling canyon, which has creeks draining from both ends.

Geological wonder aside, Xcel Energy isn’t the only company looking to pumped-storage hydropower plants to decarbonized.  Two hydropower projects have been proposed for Oregon and one in Washington.  ”We don’t think pumped-storage is the be-all, end-all but it’s a vital part of our storage future,” said Cameron Schilling, vice president of markets for the hydropower association. “You can’t decarbonize the system without it.”  According to the latest hydropower report from Department of Energy there are currently ’43 pumped-storage hydro power plants in the U.S. capable of producing 22 gigawatts of electricity, which is about 7 percent of the total electricity generated in this country.

While environmentalist question drought, climate change, bird migration, fish damage and disruption to native cultures, some opponents cite the issue of construction and operating costs as a major concern. According to one veteran energy consultant, it’s unlikely that any pumped-storage project in the region will turn a profit, and it will be a challenge for the proposed operations to meet debt payments and operating costs.

However, researchers believe the success of pumped-storage hydropower is largely dependent upon location.  The Bonneville Power Administration in the Northwest will face a separate set of challenges than the Midcontinent Independent System Operator in the Midwest.  Recent drought conditions have lowered Lake Powell drastically.  Federal officials had to release water from upstream to protect the target elevation at Lake Powell and to avoid shutting down hydroelectric power at the Glen Canyon Dam.  At the Hoover Dam in Nevada production is down by 25 percent after water levels fell to historic lows last year. As the climate continues to change and competition for water increases, the industry will have to decide whether hydropower is the best route to clean energy.  

“One significant hurdle standing between the United States and its goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035 and a net-zero energy economy by 2050 is a lack of clean energy storage,” reads a November 2021 U.S. Department of Energy announcement.

Some environmentalists, researchers, water conservationist and property owners are urging utilities, developers and policymakers to consider battery storage as a key component to reaching 100 percent carbon-free power. 

“Are we going to get to the point where an eight-hour battery is cheaper than a pumped-storage plant? That’s the billion-dollar question,” said Paul Denholm, an expert with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on May 24, 2022

It might be relevant to point out that the work involved in the pumped storage hydro plants can make use of some of the people displaced from the coal industry, and that once the plants are built, they can be used to charge the batteries.

Nevelyn Black's picture
Nevelyn Black on May 24, 2022

Thanks for bringing that up Julian.  It doesn't have to be a competition, it should be a concerted effort to reach the goal.

Nevelyn Black's picture
Thank Nevelyn for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »