U.S. hydroelectric generation expected to increase in 2020 despite drought conditions

In the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest Short-Term Energy Outlook, EIA forecasts that electricity generation from hydroelectric power plants in the United States will increase by 4% in 2020 from 2019 levels to 280 billion kilowatt-hours, even with current drought conditions and extensive wildfires in the U.S., including the Pacific Northwest.

States in the Pacific Northwest, home to the Columbia River Basin, are the largest hydroelectric power producers in the United States. Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington generated 47% of all U.S. hydroelectric power in the first half of 2020. Drought conditions in these states can have noticeable impacts on overall U.S. hydroelectric generation, especially if the drought is severe or long lasting, EIA noted.

Various factors affect how much water is available to generate hydroelectric power including precipitation levels in current and previous years.

Seasonal precipitation for the 2020 water year (October 2019 to September 2020) has been mixed in the Columbia River Basin. Most of the stations in the eastern half of the basin have reported between 70% and 130% of normal precipitation, and some stations in the western half have reported less than 50% of normal precipitation.

As of September 2020, 14 counties in Oregon and 4 counties in Idaho have issued drought emergency declarations. Because reservoirs in the region have stored water from near-normal to above-normal precipitation in recent years, the 2020 droughts aren’t expected to have noticeable impacts on hydroelectric power production.

EIA noted that according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Water and Climate Center (NWCC) reservoirs in most of the states in the Pacific Northwest have been able to retain precipitation from recent years.

As of the end of August 2020, reported reservoir storage levels were at or higher than the 30-year (1981–2010) normal in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. In Oregon, reported reservoir storage was at 37% of maximum capacity, lower than the historical average of 45%.

So far in 2020, monthly hydropower generation in these states has been within the 10-year (2010–2019) historical range, with the exception of April’s hydropower generation in Oregon, which was 10% lower than the 2010–2019 monthly range. If the 2021 water year has near-normal precipitation levels, impacts from this drought could be insignificant.