Hydroelectricity generation in the Pacific Northwest is at substantial risk this year due to drought, Gro’s drought indices show. That could lead to higher electricity prices and increased demand for natural gas in many parts of the West.
In Washington state, which generates more hydropower than any other US state, Gro’s Hydropower Drought Index level is at 3.5, indicating “severe” drought and the highest level in at least 18 years. The Hydropower Index is based on the Gro Drought Index, which measures drought severity on a scale from “0” to “5,” and is weighted by each county’s hydropower capacity to show the risk to hydroelectric power generation.
In 2015, by comparison, Gro’s Hydropower Drought Index for Washington state registered 2.4 at this time of year, indicating a “moderate” drought. Hydroelectric generation in 2015 dropped 10% below the preceding five-year average and was the lowest since 2010.
With record setting temperatures and limited rainfall, much of the Western United States is currently in “extreme” drought. This has increased the risk of wildfires, reduced agricultural output, and depleted water sources, which can limit hydroelectric power supply.
Washington satisfies about two-thirds of its electricity needs with hydropower, with Okanagan and Klickitat being the two biggest producing counties. The state also exports a significant amount of its supply to neighboring states including California and Oregon, which also produce their own hydroelectricity. For the three states combined, Gro’s Hydropower Drought Index is showing the highest risk levels to generating capacity since at least 2003, when the index began. Average retail electricity prices in California are already up double-digit percentages year over year.
Beyond the current drought, the Washington state government predicts that the impact of climate change will reduce hydropower generation by 10% in this decade. That’s likely to bring greater demand for power derived from natural-gas-fired power plants.
While August weather forecasts for the Pacific Northwest are still uncertain, the region is generally expected to continue to be warmer and drier than normal, which could further exacerbate water shortages and hydropower generation.
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