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Designing Hydropower Flows to Balance Energy and Environmental Needs

Publication Type
ORNL Report
Publication Date

Hydropower is expected to play a new role in the US electricity grid as more variable renewable energy sources like wind and solar come online. Wind and solar generation increase fluctuations in electrical supply increasing the value of flexible generation sources that can quickly ramp generation up and down. The flexible generation hydropower can provide as well as the ancillary services (e.g., frequency and voltage regulation and reserves, black start capability) it provides for balancing and stabilizing the power grid are predicted to be of increased value in these future grid scenarios. Yet, the flexibility of hydropower may come with environmental costs due to up- and down-ramping of hydropower plants (i.e., quickly increasing or decreasing generation flows, respectively) which may strand fish, dewater or scour fish nests, alter habitat, or create unsafe recreational conditions that may be unacceptable to participants in the hydropower regulatory process. These types of environmental impacts are often mitigated through environmental flow requirements that specify minimum or maximum flow releases, or ramp-rates changes allowed at a hydropower facility. While it is not currently known to what degree electrical grid reliability could be affected by environmental flow requirements, gaining a better understanding of these interactions before the grid becomes more deeply decarbonized can help define what policy, regulation, or infrastructure may be needed to support the clean energy transition.

As the future grid will rely on hydropower to provide both flexibility and robust environmental protections, the analyses and tools described in this report are centered on making mechanistic linkages between energy and the environment in hydropower systems. This understanding of energy-environment linkages can provide the foundational understanding needed to quantitatively assess the trade-offs between the increased generation flexibility that hydropower will be expected to provide and the environmental impacts of this flexibility. This report seeks to provide an objective foundation for building future science and tools that can be used by a broad spectrum of the hydropower community that is involved in licensing or environmental regulatory proceedings tasked with balancing energy and environmental objectives through flow management.