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Colorado River Hydropower Faces a Dry Future

Drought is hindering output from the river’s iconic dams

3 min read
Colorado River Hydropower Faces a Dry Future
Low Energy: There’s less water than ever behind Glen Canyon Dam and other hydropower generators on the Colorado River.
Photo: Charles Platiau/Reuters

Last year, the Hoover Dam hydroelectric plant installed the first of five wide-head turbines. These are designed to work efficiently even as the Colorado River shrinks under a record-long drought. The dry spell affecting the dam’s power source has outlasted any other in the 77 years that the structure has generated electricity. By the time the fifth turbine is installed in 2016, Hoover Dam will likely need them all.

Lake Mead, which sits on the border between Nevada and Arizona behind Hoover Dam, is expected to drop 2.4 meters in 2014, as less and less water flows downstream from Lake Powell, which straddles Utah and ­Arizona. The sharp decline comes about because the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation needs to cut Lake Powell’s water release by ­nearly 1 billion cubic meters to 9.2 billion m3 for the 2014 water season, the smallest release since the lake was filled in the 1960s. The flow of water to Lake Powell­ from key tributaries has been decreasing for more than a decade, and the bureau’s forecasters expect that the reservoir could hit an all-time low this season.

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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

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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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