ENERGY SECURITYWe Need Hydropower for a Resilient Grid

By Kelsey Adkisson

Published 12 February 2022

The shift in power source mix and climate change-driven natural disasters make America’s most critical piece of energy infrastructure—the grid—more vulnerable than ever before. That’s where hydropower plays a pivotal role: When other types of power plants go dark, hydropower provides a fast, crucial response in seconds.

America’s most critical piece of energy infrastructure—the grid—is more vulnerable than ever before. The reasons are two-fold: a shift in power source mix is affecting grid stability, combined with an uptick in natural disasters. When part of the grid goes out, it can cause a ripple effect across entire regions if not quickly corrected.

That’s where hydropower plays a pivotal role, according to a new study led by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) that quantified hydropower’s contribution to grid stability in the United States’ western region. When other power sources go out, hydropower can rapidly ramp up, recoup shortfalls, and stabilize the grid nearly instantaneously.

And shortfalls are becoming more common—outages from extreme weather alone have quadrupled in the past five years.

“What worked for the old grid, might not work in the future,” said Abhishek Somani, a PNNL scientist who led the multi-national laboratory study. “For years, operators have used hydropower for grid stability, but the extent of hydropower’s contributions haven’t been known beyond that sphere—until now.”

Cruise Control for a Resilient Grid
In 2003, on a hot August afternoon in Ohio, an overgrown tree brushed against a high voltage powerline and caused a shut down, known as a fault. Three more faults occurred when other lines picked up the slack, then became overloaded. Soon, this regional outage triggered a cascade of power failures from Michigan to New York, becoming the largest blackout in United States history and leaving 50 million people in the dark.   

Yet in New York, hydropower kicked in and was producing almost half of the state’s total electricity within six hours of power loss. The sheer size of two of New York’s biggest dams, Niagara and St. Lawrence-FDR, helped the state withstand the outage shock which had pushed other types of power plants off-line.

“If a large power plant went out or a wildfire burned a transmission line, it changes the grid’s operating frequency and can cause a drop below it’s typical 60 Hz,” said Somani. “If not corrected within seconds, it can lead to widespread outages.”