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Climatologists and River Agency Butt Heads About Future of Southwest's Hydroelectric Power

Will hydropower from Hoover Dam end in 2013, 2017, or just keep going?

3 min read

18 March 2008—Up to 30 million people in seven western U.S. states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and New Mexico—could begin to experience water shortages and power outages as soon as 2013, according to a study published in the January edition of the journal Water Resources Research . ”Our hydrological analysis of Lake Mead and Lake Powell shows there is a 10 percent chance that water levels in the man-made Lakes Mead [in Nevada] and Powell [on the Utah/Arizona border] will be so low by 2013 that they might not be able to meet water-supply demands nor produce the hydroelectric power needed in the Southwest,” says Timothy Barnett, a research marine physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., and lead author of the Water Resources paper. Barnett’s team also found that there is a greater than 50 percent chance that power-pool levels—the minimum depth of water at which hydroelectric power can be generated—will be reached in 2017. But the agency that manages the region’s river system disputes the study’s conclusions and says that despite a drought, Lake Mead still has a 20-meter cushion before the lights go out.

The waters stored in the Lake Mead and Lake Powell reservoirs are the source of hydroelectric power produced by the Hoover and Glen Canyon Dams for seven states and together produce about 10 000 gigawatt-hours of electricity. The water source for the dams is the Colorado River, which begins its long journey from the snow-capped Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The natural runoff from snowmelt replenishes the water in the 2330-kilometer-long Colorado River each spring and summer. After running through the turbines at the Hoover Dam on Lake Mead, the Colorado River continues on its journey southward to the Davis, Parker, and Imperial dams all located along the California/Arizona border.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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