In Heat Wave, Hydro is a Must-Have

Forecasters say the heat wave that’s been burning up the Northwest – and putting huge demands on the region’s power grid – is beginning to break, at least in the big metro areas. From inland Washington to eastern Oregon to central Idaho, however, temperatures continue to soar to 100° and beyond.

It’s a good time for cooler news: Despite the surge in electricity demand, we’re all still able to flip the lights on, charge our smartphones, run our AC or ceiling fans, and take hot morning showers.

The reason? Hydropower.

As winds have dwindled in recent weeks, hydro from federal dams has stepped up in a big way to provide ongoing, uninterrupted power. The proof is in the numbers on the Bonneville Power Administration website, which tracks in near real-time just how many megawatts each power source (wind, hydro, fossil fuels/biomass, nuclear) is contributing to meet demand.

Over a recent 24 hours, as measured in five-minute intervals, the input from wind ranged from a high of 2,676 MW to a low of just 4 MW. By comparison, hydro pumped out 11,658 MW in one five-minute interval and, even at its lowest, never dipped below 4,200 MW. In other words, the smallest contribution from hydro over a 24-hour period was still more than 50% larger than wind’s largest input during the same timeframe.

This is what hydropower backers mean when we talk about carbon-free hydro and other renewables working together to keep the lights on, while keeping our skies cleaner than other parts of the country. Wind, solar and other renewable energy sources are important, but they can’t power the Northwest on their own – not by a long shot. They need backup from hydro, which remains constant and reliable, even during periods of peak demand, like the cold depths of winter or, increasingly in this climate-change era, a broiling summer heat wave.

Our access to electricity hasn’t been compromised, despite record-high consumer demand, because the Northwest’s interconnected system of federal hydropower dams, including the four dams on the Lower Snake River, work together to provide consistent power – integrating wind and other resources, filling the gaps, and stabilizing the regional power grid. To refuse to acknowledge hydro’s critical value in this scenario is to deny reality. The megawatts don’t lie.

Even if the anti-dam groups don’t get it, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee does. He declared July 22 “Hydropower Appreciation Day,” with a proclamation that praised hydropower

as “a carbon-free energy resource, which can be ready and available when needed, and coordinated to complement other renewable energy resources….”

And just last week, Janet Herrin, BPA’s chief operating officer, reported on hydro’s crucial contribution in a press release: “For our customers, 87 percent of every movie watched, load of laundry washed or electric vehicle and smartphone charged comes from renewable, reliable hydropower.”

Don’t get me wrong: Wind and other intermittent renewables have a role to play. But when the wind doesn’t blow, and often even when it does, it’s still hydropower that keeps the lights on in the Northwest – in a heat wave and all year-round.

nwrpIn Heat Wave, Hydro is a Must-Have