September 21, 2022

Drought impacts on hydroelectric power generation in the Western United States


The Western United States experiences large fluctuations in rain and snowfall from year to year, affecting river flows and reservoir levels throughout the region. This interannual variability in water resources leaves a strong signature on total annual energy generated by the region’s fleet of hydroelectric dams. In a wet year, like 2011, hydroelectric power can meet 30 percent of annual western electricity demand. That contribution can drop below 20 percent during severe drought years. Characterizing the contribution of hydroelectric power to the western generation portfolio during drought is crucial to understanding the resilience of the hydropower sector to climate-related risk, both now and in the future. This report analyzes the impacts of historical western droughts on hydroelectric power production by combining two decades’ worth of annual generation—recorded at more than 600 hydroelectric power plants—with historical climate data developed for distinct hydropower subregions of the West. The most extreme impacts of drought on hydroelectric power are found at individual dams where reservoir levels are so low that released water and thus generation becomes severely restricted. These isolated cases often receive widespread media attention, leading to a common misconception that hydroelectric power is an unreliable technology whose role will diminish over time as the western climate produces longer and more severe droughts. Yet, when aggregated to the scale of the West, the observational records of hydropower generation reveal a different story. Even during the most severe droughts experienced since the turn of the century, the western hydropower fleet sustained more than 80% of its typical annual generation. Observational data indicate that drought in 2021 led to the worst year for hydropower generation in the West since 2001, with total generation approximately 16 percent below the 21st century two-decade average. The year 2021 was particularly severe in California (second worst hydro year of last two decades, ~48 percent below average) and Oregon (worst hydro year of last two decades), while generation in Washington and Idaho was affected to a lesser degree (~12 percent below average for combined region). The year 2001 remains the year of lowest western hydropower generation of the twenty-first century so far, owing to extreme drought in the Pacific Northwest, where about two-thirds of western hydropower capacity is located. The primary reason for this relative stability is the diversity of weather across the West; drought rarely impairs hydroelectric power across all river basins at the same time.

Published: September 21, 2022


Turner S., N. Voisin, K.D. Nelson, and V.C. Tidwell. 2022. Drought impacts on hydroelectric power generation in the Western United States Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.