Western Canada drought impacting hydropower production as reservoirs run low

WINNIPEG - Severe drought conditions in Western Canada are compelling two hydroelectricity-dependent provinces, British Columbia and Manitoba, to import power from other regions. These provinces, known for their reliance on hydroelectric power, are facing reduced electricity production due to low water levels in reservoirs this autumn and winter.

While there is no immediate threat of power outages in either province, experts indicate that climate change is leading to more frequent and severe droughts. This trend places increasing pressure on hydroelectric power producers in the future.

In British Columbia, several regions are experiencing "extreme" drought conditions as classified by the federal government. BC Hydro spokesperson Kyle Donaldson referred to these conditions as "historic," noting that the corporation's large reservoirs in the north and southeast are at their lowest levels in many years.

To mitigate this, BC Hydro has been conserving water by utilizing less affected reservoirs and importing additional power from Alberta and various western U.S. states. Donaldson confirmed that these measures would persist in the upcoming months.

Manitoba is also facing challenges with below-normal levels in reservoirs and rivers. Since October, Manitoba Hydro has occasionally relied on its natural gas turbines to supplement hydroelectric production, a measure usually reserved for peak winter demand.

Bruce Owen, a spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro, reassured that there is no imminent risk of a power shortage. The corporation can import electricity from other regions, similar to how it exports surplus power in high-water years.

However, the cost implications are significant. Manitoba Hydro anticipates a financial loss for the current fiscal year, the second in a decade, with the previous one in 2021. That year, drought conditions led to a significant reduction in the company's power production capabilities, resulting in a $248-million loss.

The 2021 drought also affected hydropower production in the United States. The U.S. Department of Energy reported a 16% reduction in overall generation, with notable decreases at major facilities like Nevada's Hoover Dam, where production dropped by 25%.

Drought has long been a major concern for hydroelectricity producers, and they plan their operations with this risk in mind. Manitoba's record drought in 1940-41, for example, is a benchmark for Manitoba Hydro's operational planning to ensure sufficient electricity supply even in extreme low-water conditions.

Climate change, however, is increasing the frequency of such rare events, highlighting the need for more robust backup systems. Blake Shaffer, an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary specializing in electricity markets, emphasized the importance of hydroelectric systems incorporating the worsening drought forecasts due to climate change into their energy production planning.


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