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Drought in Western Canada impacting hydropower production as reservoirs run low



Severe drought conditions in Western Canada are taking a toll on hydropower production in the hydro-rich provinces of British Columbia (B.C.) and Manitoba. Both provinces heavily rely on hydroelectricity, but low reservoir levels caused by the prolonged dry spell are impacting electricity generation this fall and winter. The consequences are prompting the provinces to import power from neighboring jurisdictions to meet demand.


In B.C., vast regions are grappling with "extreme" drought conditions, as stated by the federal government. BC Hydro, the Crown corporation responsible for electricity production, reports historically low reservoir levels in the north and southeast areas of the province. Kyle Donaldson, a BC Hydro spokesman, acknowledges the severity of the dry conditions, emphasizing the need to take measures to conserve water. BC Hydro has been drawing on reservoirs in less affected regions and increasing power imports from Alberta and various western U.S. states to alleviate the strain on their hydro systems.


Meanwhile, Manitoba is facing below-normal reservoir and river levels, leading Manitoba Hydro to intermittently utilize natural gas-fired turbines since October. This unusual step, typically reserved for peak winter demand, aims to supplement hydropower production. Manitoba Hydro assures there is no immediate risk of a power shortage, emphasizing the ability to import electricity from other regions. However, the financial implications are substantial, with the utility projecting a net loss for the fiscal year, driven by increased power imports and reduced ability to export excess power.


Climate change is identified as a contributing factor to the increased frequency and severity of droughts. The impact on hydropower production extends beyond Canada, as evidenced by the 2021 drought affecting the United States, where overall generation was significantly lower than average. Hydroelectricity producers face a challenge in adapting to these changing conditions, necessitating stronger backup systems to ensure reliable electricity supply.


Hydro generators also confront rising electricity demand, driven by factors such as the growth of electric vehicles and efforts to decarbonize the economy. Manitoba Hydro's projections indicate a potential doubling of electrical demand within the province over the next two decades, highlighting the need for additional electricity sources. While drought poses a long-term challenge for hydro generation, its short-term stability compared to wind and solar allows for strategic power imports during favorable market conditions.


To address the current challenges and prepare for the future, experts emphasize the importance of investing in additional inter-provincial transmission ties. Enhanced transmission infrastructure would enable seamless power exchanges between provinces, ensuring a more resilient electricity system. This becomes crucial as regions with different energy systems can collaborate effectively during periods of drought or low renewable energy production.


In conclusion, the impact of drought on hydropower production in Western Canada underscores the importance of adapting to changing climate conditions and investing in robust inter-provincial transmission infrastructure to ensure a stable and efficient electricity supply for the future.


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