By Lindsay Aramayo and Tyler Hodge
This article was published by the US Energy Information Administration on Sept. 23, 2021.
In our latest Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), we forecast that electricity generation from US hydropower plants will be 14 per cent lower in 2021 than it was in 2020. Extreme and exceptional drought conditions have been affecting much of the western United States, especially California and states in the Pacific Northwest, which are home to the majority of US hydropower capacity.
The Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River is the fourth-largest river in the United States by volume. Its watershed, the Columbia River Basin, covers large parts of four states: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. In 2020, hydropower plants in these states generated 136 billion kilowatthours (kWh) of electricity, representing 54 per cent of US hydropower generation that year.
The dry conditions have reduced reservoir storage levels in some Columbia River Basin states. According to the US Department of Agriculture’s National Water and Climate Center (NWCC), reservoir storage in Montana and Washington is at or above average. However, as of the end of August 2021, reservoir storage in Oregon measured 17 per cent of capacity, less than half its historical average capacity of 47 per cent. Idaho reported reservoir storage at 34 per cent of capacity, lower than its historical average capacity of 51 per cent.
In March and April of 2021, hydropower generation in both Washington and Oregon was 10 per cent below the 10-year (2011–20) range. Over the summer, hydropower generation in these states moved back within the 10-year range.
California contains 13 per cent of the United States’ hydropower capacity; in 2020, hydropower plants in California produced 7 per cent of the country’s hydropower generation. However, the state is experiencing intense and widespread drought this year, which has reduced water supply and hydropower generation. The reservoir at Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California, hit a historic low of 35 per cent in August 2021, prompting the Edward Hyatt Power Plant to go offline for the first time since 1967. So far this year, hydropower generation in California has been on the lower end of its 10-year range.
In STEO, we forecast electricity generation for electricity market regions instead of state geographical boundaries. The latest STEO expects hydropower generation in the Northwest electricity region, which includes the Columbia River Basin and parts of other Rocky Mountain states, to total 120 billion kWh in 2021, a 12 per cent decline from 2020. We expect hydropower generation in the California electricity region to be 49 per cent lower in 2021 than in 2020, at 8.5 billion kWh.