Drought and The Billion Dollar Hydropower Question
- May 24, 2022 4:57 am GMT
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.
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