Hydroelectricity and bare winter mountaintops


in Canada, Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

Blocks of wood, identified by species

Hydroelectricity is a crucial energy source for Canada: providing 59% of the national electricity supply (and 97% in Quebec), as well as energy for things like the Kitimat Aluminium Smelter. As such, there is good reason to be concerned about changes in mountain glaciers and snowpack arising from climate change. Ideally, you want snow and ice to accumulate in the mountains during the winter. That somewhat reduces the flow of water into reservoirs, which helps prevent the need to release large quantities because the dam is at capacity. Then, during the spring and summer, you want the ice to melt, helping to keep the water level in the reservoir relatively steady and allowing the continuous production of energy without threatening riverflow-dependent wildlife or downstream water usage.

Climate change is upsetting this dynamic in several ways. Warmer winters involve less snowfall, overwhelming dams during the wet season and failing to build up frozen reserves. Hot summers increase evaporation from reservoirs and water usage by industry and individuals. Some scientific evidence also suggests that climate change is exacerbating both the intensity of rainy and dry periods: further worsening the stability of water levels and the ability of dams to produce baseload energy reliably.

Mike Demuth, a glaciologist working for Natural Resources Canada, predicts the disappearance of all small to mid-sized glaciers in the Rockies within the next 50 to 100 years. The Athabasca and 29 other glaciers feed the Columbia River, which in turn provides 60% of the electricity used in the western United States (generated by the Grand Coulee Dam, Chief Joseph Dam, and others). The low cost of energy in the area has even led companies like Google to locate their server farms in the region. Not only is the loss of our mountain cryosphere likely to cause domestic problems, it is highly likely to eventually provoke a pretty serious international conflict.

Report a typo or inaccuracy

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan February 11, 2008 at 11:18 am

The Grand Coulee Dam produces 6809 MW of electricity and is the largest concrete structure in the United States. The Chief Joseph Dam produces 2,620 MW.

Anon February 11, 2008 at 1:35 pm
tlaing February 11, 2008 at 2:11 pm

Climate change may be a problem for hydro power, but there are a few things that can help mitigate this. First, if someone gets the electricity to hydrogen conversion down fairly cheaply, it will not be a problem when the power is produced (and rivers could resume their normal flood-wane cycle). This is probably the biggest advantage of switching main carrying capacity from high voltage lines to pipes of hydrogen – one no longer needs to produce the electricity at exactly the time it will be consumed.

The politics of water storage, which is how you regulate flow, will likely become a topic of expansion if the periods of dry and wet weather are extended. Considering the political popularity of the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbia_River_Treaty , it is almost certain this problem will be solved at the expense of sovereignty, fertile land, and fish.

Milan February 11, 2008 at 2:21 pm

First, if someone gets the electricity to hydrogen conversion down fairly cheaply, it will not be a problem when the power is produced (and rivers could resume their normal flood-wane cycle).

This would definitely be an advantage of hydrogen, but it is dubious whether it will ever be possible to electrolyze water without using really huge amounts of electricity (so much that losses from transmission are significantly smaller). If you want to crack hydrogen off of hydrocarbons you can, and at a far lesser energy cost, but it hardly gets you into a renewable energy economy.

tlaing February 11, 2008 at 4:12 pm

“it is dubious whether it will ever be possible to electrolyze water without using really huge amounts of electricity ”

You certainly mean “electricity turned into something other than the higher potential energy state of hydrogen and oxygen seperated”

What are these losses at now? Can the excess heat not be recaptured to do something useful? (perhaps run a turbine?)

. February 11, 2008 at 4:42 pm

Electrolysis of water

The energy efficiency of water electrolysis varies widely. The efficiency is a measure of what fraction of electrical energy used is actually contained within the hydrogen. Some of the electrical energy is converted to heat, a useless by-product. Some reports quote efficiencies between 50% and 70%[1] This efficiency is based on the Lower Heating Value of Hydrogen. The Lower Heating Value of Hydrogen is thermal energy released when Hydrogen is combusted. This does not represent the total amount of energy within the Hydrogen, hence the efficiency is lower than a more strict definition. Other reports quote the theoretical maximum efficiency of electrolysis. The theoretical maximum efficiency is between 80% and 94%.[2]. The theoretical maximum considers the total amount of energy absorbed by both the hydrogen and oxygen. These values refer only to the efficiency of converting electrical energy into hydrogen’s chemical energy. The energy lost in generating the electricity is not included. For instance, when considering a power plant that converts the heat of nuclear reactions into hydrogen via electrolysis, the total efficiency is more like 25%–40%.

There is no lack of energy on Earth, but rather a huge problem of energy conversion. As you correctly deduce, our inefficient “machines” produce a lot of waste heat.

I actually work on thermoelectric energy conversion, which is a way of converting waste heat into electrical energy. There are a few reasons why thermoelectrics aren’t more common.

The first is that they aren’t generally terribly efficient. A very good thermoelectric is ~10% efficient, and that’s with efficiency given as a percentage of Carnot efficiency. See, you can’t turn thermal energy into work, but rather thermal gradients, and the theoretical maximum efficiency (Carnot) is T_H-T_C/T_H. Which means there’s not a lot of energy to get out of waste heat.

The second reason is cost; thermoelectrics, solar, etc. remain substantially more expensive than burning fossil fuels. The main costs are production, materials that go into devices, and research costs (my research is expensive, and while my salary is but a blip, I do have to eat, y’know).

The third reason is closely related to the first two; in order for a technology like thermoelectrics (or a Stirling engine or whatnot) to really matter on a global scale, you would need massive amounts of area converting waste heat. It’s simply not feasible or viable with current technologies. Give me a few years, and maybe I can help improve that.

tristan February 11, 2008 at 6:24 pm

First, if you’re talking about converting “waste” heat, then it doesn’t make sense to say thermoeletrics have any “efficiency” at all. It’s like saying how many miles per gallon does your car get if it runs on garbage and emits nothing but slightly less garbage. It just doesn’t matter.

The reason why thermoeletrics don’t make sense, if they don’t, is simply that, like you say, they are more expensive than burning fossil fuels. Maybe an analogy would be: you have the option of buying a car that runs on something free, but a petrol car costs 1/100th as much so even with the cost of petrol it comes out cheaper.

Again, the reason why these technologies can’t be implemented is the artificially low price of oil. If this is not the #1 problem with climate change right now, I’d like to hear why.

Milan February 11, 2008 at 7:27 pm


I agree that any recovery of waste heat is a bonus. That said, the 10% figure is still important. If you have an industrial plant producing one megawatt of waste heat and you can install equipment to capture 60% of it for $100,000, you are a lot more likely to make the investment than you would be if that equipment could only capture 10%.

Milan February 11, 2008 at 7:31 pm

There are a number of costs associated with converting waste heat to usable energy. These include the initial design and purchase of equipment, maintenance, staff to run it, etc. It is quite possible that even if you could get an appreciable amount of energy, it would be in the wrong form.

It is a win-win to reveal situations where waste heat can be converted to useful energy at a lower total cost than the market rate for the same amount of energy. Add in carbon pricing, and that becomes a win-win climatically as well.

I would be interested in seeing specific assessments of the potential to capture energy from electrolyzing equipment for water, and the degree to which that can mitigate inefficiencies associated with the unwanted production of heat.

Milan February 11, 2008 at 7:34 pm

One last thing: if you want to store energy from hydro for the dry season, hydrogen production is not the only option. Two other possibilities (and there may be more) are using pumped hydro storage and compressing air inside caves.

tlaing February 11, 2008 at 9:38 pm

Pumped hydro storage simply doubles the environmental impact of a dam; not a happy proposition for those living nearby (but of no concern to New Yorkers who simply don’t want their island to flood).

Compressed air inside caves demands caves, and I don’t know how many of BC’s dams are anywhere near huge underground caverns.

Anonymous February 13, 2008 at 1:08 pm

Lake Mead Could Be Within a Few Years of Going Dry, Study Finds

Lake Mead, the vast reservoir for the Colorado River water that sustains the fast-growing cities of Phoenix and Las Vegas, could lose water faster than previously thought and run dry within 13 years, according to a new study by scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

The lake, located in Nevada and Arizona, has a 50 percent chance of becoming unusable by 2021, the scientists say, if the demand for water remains unchanged and if human-induced climate change follows climate scientists’ moderate forecasts, resulting in a reduction in average river flows.

Demand for Colorado River water already slightly exceeds the average annual supply when high levels of evaporation are taken into account, the researchers, Tim P. Barnett and David W. Pierce, point out. Despite an abundant snowfall in Colorado this year, scientists project that snowpacks and their runoffs will continue to dwindle. If they do, the system for delivering water across the Southwest would become increasingly unstable.

. February 14, 2008 at 11:55 am

If you are worried about Lake Mead drying up, think that reduced snowpack due to climate change might have something to do with it, and are looking for some answers, you could do a lot worse than listen to David Berry of the Western Resource Advocates. I always do, and he’s never steered me wrong. See his timely “Clean Electric Energy Strategy for Arizona” (PDF).

Milan February 14, 2008 at 2:51 pm

Nature 451, 778-779 (14 February 2008) | doi:10.1038/451778a; Published online 13 February 2008

Catalysis: The art of splitting water

Thomas J. Meyer1
Top of page

Plants produce oxygen from water, but the same chemical reaction is hard to achieve synthetically. A new family of catalysts could breathe fresh life into the quest for artificial photosynthesis.

Photosynthesis in plants underpins the existence of many life-forms on Earth. At its heart is a remarkable chemical reaction: the light-powered conversion of water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbohydrates. The development of an artificial version of this reaction, based on splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, is highly desirable, not least because of hydrogen’s attraction as a fuel. Reporting in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, Bernhard and colleagues describe the preparation of a new family of synthetic catalysts for the first part of this splitting reaction — water oxidation. The reactivity of the iridium-based catalysts that they have developed can be modified simply by varying the organic framework surrounding the metal.

Milan February 14, 2008 at 2:51 pm

Given the breakthroughs reported seemingly daily in materials science, nanotechnology and molecular biology, it might seem odd that we have made so little progress in designing catalysts for essential reactions such as water oxidation under conditions comparable to those of photosynthesis. The problem is that water oxidation is inherently difficult. It demands the loss of four electrons and four protons from two water molecules, all accompanied by the formation of an oxygen–oxygen bond (Fig. 1a). Removing one electron at a time doesn’t work because it produces a high-energy hydroxyl radical and is much too slow

. February 18, 2008 at 10:37 am
Anon February 26, 2008 at 3:55 pm

This Energy Island plan may interest you.

Tzeporah Berman March 24, 2009 at 2:10 pm

It may stick in the craw of environmentalists like me to say so, but we need to be grateful to the previous generations that built the mega dams and gave our generation such a head start towards a clean grid which could become the basis for a green economy. Those who fought big hydro dams back in the day did not have the knowledge of global warming that we have now, but we are lucky environmentalists lost most of those fights. And we must not make the mistake of acting against emission-free power in the face of all the science available today.

. May 7, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Lake Mead Is Drying Up

* Posted by: Mark Frauenfelder
* on May 6, 2009 at 9:30 am

Water levels are falling in America’s largest reservoir. If it dries up, so could power and water for much of the Southwest.

Imagine Nevada’s Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States, as a great sand pit, and imagine the population of the western United States as a colossal ostrich burying its head in the pit. And now, imagine the sand level dropping so fast that the willfully ignorant bird is forced to confront the fact that Lake Mead may actually become as dry as a sand pit in a decade.

Lake Mead stores water from the Colorado River. When full, it holds 9.3 trillion gallons, an amount equal to the water that flows through the Colorado River in two years. The water from Lake Mead is used for many things. It irrigates a million acres of crops in the United States and Mexico, and supplies water to tens of millions of people. Its mighty Hoover Dam generates enough electricity to power a half-million homes. Additionally, the power from Hoover Dam is used to carry water up and across the Sierra Nevada Mountains on its way to Southern California.

. March 8, 2010 at 10:58 am

Colombia, Venezuela: Offering Power — For a Price

The water level of the Guri dam, which generates 63 percent of Venezuela’s electricity, may drop to 240 meters above sea level in early April, according to Venezuelan officials. Such a drop could leave 40 percent of the country without power. As the electricity situation deteriorates, Caracas will have little choice but to turn to its neighbor and rival, Colombia, for help. That help, however, will come at a high political price.

Approximately 40 percent of Venezuela will be left in the dark if the country’s Guri dam’s water level, which generates 63 percent of Venezuela’s electricity, reaches a crisis level of 240 meters in early April, Miguel Lara, the former director of the National Center of Management (formerly OPSIS) told Venezuelan daily El Nacional March 5.

The latest figures show the dam level at 254.2 meters above sea level and dropping at a rate of 11 to 16 centimeters per day. Though this rate already is alarming, Venezuelan sources claim that drop is even more severe than what the official figures suggest, especially considering that the dam is cone-shaped and thus holds less water at deeper levels. Venezuela still is in its annual dry season, but due to the el Nino effect, there is no guarantee the country will see much relief in April and May when rainfall usually picks up and fills the Caroni River.

While blaming the crisis exclusively on the weather (and ignoring years of lack of investment and government mismanagement of the electricity sector), Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has made repeated calls to his citizens to cut their shower time to three minutes, turn the lights off and reduce work hours to get through the crisis. Those that do not reduce their electricity demand have been threatened with fines and arrest. According to la Gaceta Oficial, an official government newsletter, Caracas Electricity (EDC) will initiate 24-hour power cuts to the 8,000 businesses in Caracas that have been deemed heavy electricity consumers and have failed to meet the government’s demand to cut consumption by 20 percent.

. March 26, 2010 at 3:05 pm

March 9, 2010, 12:00 pm
Drought Has Venezuela Looking at Alternatives to Hydropower

A severe drought in Venezuela appears to be pushing the country’s president, Hugo Chávez, to ramp up efforts to diversify the country’s energy portfolio.

Up to now, hydropower has been the major energy source in Venezuela — providing residents and industry with up to two-thirds of the total electricity produced. But a record lack of rainfall has resulted in low water flows and several power interruptions — as well as angry recriminations of the government from some Venezuelans ahead of upcoming legislative elections scheduled for September.

Mr. Chávez, citing the electricity crisis, declared a state of emergency last month, and the government has pointed to rapidly rising electricity demand as a chief component of the problem.

Critics have said poor management and underinvestment in the energy sector are also to blame.

Now the country is hunting for new ways to produce electricity, and according to Bloomberg News, Mr. Chávez is urging his government to pursue wind and nuclear projects as alternatives.

According to the news agency, Venezuela aims to add 5,000 megawatts of capacity this year alone.

. March 30, 2010 at 11:40 am

“An El Nino-spawned drought, rising demand and years of neglect have brought Venezuela’s electrical grid to the brink of collapse. The most telling sign is the reservoir level at the Guri dam, which, along with two other nearby dams, provides around 70 percent of the nation’s electricity. As of March 18, the reservoir level stood at approximately 252 meters above sea level, placing it dangerously close to the dam’s “collapse level.” If this level were to be reached, 80 percent of the dam’s power generation turbines would have to be shut down, resulting in rolling blackouts throughout much of the country. If that happened, Venezuela’s electricity crisis would become a political crisis for President Hugo Chavez.”

. May 27, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Low water levels threaten power supply
Coal may be needed to meet peak demand

An 18-month outlook issued Thursday by the system operator acknowledged the problem. “Limited precipitation this past winter and spring has contributed to uncertainty around hydroelectric capability over the summer months,” it stated.

Wilson said at this time of year the province’s hydroelectric generators are usually putting out about 5,000 megawatts, but a review of daily output this month shows that rarely do levels exceed 4,000 megawatts.

On Friday, Ontario Power Generation reported that its unregulated hydroelectric generators produced 400 gigawatt-hours less electricity during the first quarter of 2010, “primarily due to lower water levels.” The reduction is expected to become more pronounced in the second and third quarters.

OPG issued a statement Thursday to warn boaters that this April was one of the driest on record. “This weekend we’re urging people to take extra care in watching water levels as this is a year unlike any other,” said John Murphy, the utility’s executive vice-president of hydro.

Dry winter, spring means water levels on Ontario rivers and lakes at historic lows

I had a short article over the weekend about low water levels in Ontario and the impact on hydroelectric generation. Obviously, this is an issue that goes beyond Ontario’s borders. Record low snowfall over the winter and a dry spring has erased more than 1,000 megawatts of hydroelectric capacity in Ontario, and it’s likely to get worse. I just got off a conference call with the International Joint Commission, which regulates water flows and use on the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River. Clearly, it’s not just the rivers that are suffering. “The levels of all of the Great Lakes are below average, and indeed are lower than they were at this time last year,” according to commission staff. “Lake Ontario is 30 centimetres, or one foot, below the average for mid-May and 36 centimetres below a year ago.”

. June 9, 2010 at 5:02 pm

“Priced or not, water is certainly valued, and that value depends on the use to which it is harnessed. Water is used not just to grow food but to make every kind of product, from microchips to steel girders. The largest industrial purpose to which it is put is cooling in thermal power generation, but it is also used in drilling for and extracting oil, the making of petroleum products and ethanol, and the production of hydro-electricity. Some of the processes involved, such as hydro power generation, consume little water (after driving the turbines, most is returned to the river), but some, such as the techniques used to extract oil from sands, are big consumers.

Industrial use takes about 60% of water in rich countries and 10% in the rest. The difference in domestic use is much smaller, 11% and 8% respectively. Some of the variation is explained by capacious baths, power showers and flush lavatories in the rich world. All humans, however, need a basic minimum of two litres of water in food or drink each day, and for this there is no substitute. No one survived in the ruins of Port-au-Prince for more than a few days after January’s earthquake unless they had access to some water-based food or drink. That is why many people in poor and arid countries—usually women or children—set off early each morning to trudge to the nearest well and return five or six hours later burdened with precious supplies. That is why many people believe water to be a human right, a necessity more basic than bread or a roof over the head. “

. June 16, 2011 at 5:54 pm

Snowpack in the northern Rocky Mountains drying up
June 10, 2011 10:46 AM

Snowpack in the northern Rocky Mountains has declined over the past 30 years more than at any other time in a least 1,000 years (30-year decline is old news, 1000 year perspective is new). Snowmelt from the Rockies provide water for at least 70 million people. Snow is also melting weeks earlier in the American West. Some consequences of earlier snowmelt (of less snow) are drier forests, more wildfires and less water for people in a West heating up and drying out.

. May 25, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Melting B.C. glaciers cited as a major issue in American state-of-the-union report on climate change

“Most glaciers in Alaska and British Columbia are shrinking substantially,” said the U.S. National Climate Assessment, released last week to much fanfare south of the border.

“This trend is expected to continue and has implications for hydropower production, ocean circulation patterns, fisheries, and global sea level rise.”

According to the report, glaciers in the region are losing 20 to 30 per cent of what is melting annually from the Greenland Ice Sheet, which has received far more worldwide attention.

That amounts to about 40 to 70 gigatons per year, or about 10% of the annual discharge of the Mississippi River.

. January 4, 2016 at 5:07 pm

Power generation could take a big hit from climate change
Changes to water temperature, availability affect hydroelectric, thermoelectric power plants

Climate change could lead to significant declines in electricity production in coming decades as water resources are disrupted, said a study published on Monday.

Hydropower stations and thermoelectric plants, which depend on water to generate energy, together contribute about 98 per cent of the world’s electricity production, said the study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Shifts in water temperatures, or the availability of fresh water due to climate change, could lead to reductions in
electricity production capacity in more than two thirds of the world’s power plants between 2040 and 2069, said the study from an Austrian research centre.

. January 4, 2016 at 5:08 pm

Power-generation system vulnerability and adaptation to changes in climate and water resources

Hydropower and thermoelectric power together contribute 98% of the world’s electricity generation at present1. These power-generating technologies both strongly depend on water availability, and water temperature for cooling also plays a critical role for thermoelectric power generation. Climate change and resulting changes in water resources will therefore affect power generation while energy demands continue to increase with economic development and a growing world population. Here we present a global assessment of the vulnerability of the world’s current hydropower and thermoelectric power-generation system to changing climate and water resources, and test adaptation options for sustainable water–energy security during the twenty-first century. Using a coupled hydrological–electricity modelling framework with data on 24,515 hydropower and 1,427 thermoelectric power plants, we show reductions in usable capacity for 61–74% of the hydropower plants and 81–86% of the thermoelectric power plants worldwide for 2040–2069. However, adaptation options such as increased plant efficiencies, replacement of cooling system types and fuel switches are effective alternatives to reduce the assessed vulnerability to changing climate and freshwater resources. Transitions in the electricity sector with a stronger focus on adaptation, in addition to mitigation, are thus highly recommended to sustain water–energy security in the coming decades.

. September 14, 2017 at 12:07 pm

Asia’s glaciers to shrink by a third by 2100, threatening water supply of millions

High mountains of Asia hold biggest store of frozen water outside the poles and feed many of the world’s great rivers, including the Ganges

. September 20, 2017 at 6:19 pm

But in 2012, the Department of the Interior put together a famous climate change study (“famous” among water researchers in Arizona, that is) showing a yawning chasm opening up between water supply and demand by 2060—a 3.2 million-acre-foot shortfall of water, to be precise. That’s about five times as much water as Los Angeles uses in a year, according to the Washington Post.


. October 23, 2017 at 12:09 am

It is no longer worth hauling heavy machinery to the glacier to extract samples from it; Humboldt is too small and dirt-caked for that. But Mr Braun would like to dot it with sensors to measure water run-off, and erect weather stations to capture data on wind, temperature and barometric pressure. That would help him understand how weather influences the melting of tropical glaciers. Until Venezuela calms down, Mr Braun will be restricted to monitoring the Humboldt glacier’s decline remotely, using satellite imagery, which just reveals how fast it is melting.

That is a loss not just for science but for people in other Andean countries who rely on meltwater from tropical glaciers. In springtime that runoff is an important source of water for residents of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, for example. Closer study of Humboldt’s decline might provide knowledge that could help them. Venezuela’s ever-deepening crisis makes it impossible for now.

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