This adventure was originally appear in Aerial Country News and is reproduced actuality as allotment of the Altitude Desk collaboration.
Thirty-nine years ago, due to record-breaking blast in the Upper Colorado River Basin, Lake Powell rose substantially, communicable river managers off-guard. By backward June, the backlog was about overflowing, banishment operators—for the aboriginal time ever—to await on the spillways. Instead of giving relief, that precipitated a new crisis, as a abnormality alleged cavitation beatific shockwaves through the spillways’ innards, disturbing through the accurate and afresh the sandstone, putting the colossal Glen Canyon Dam in peril.
The spillways were repaired, and the dam survived. But now it is threatened yet again, alone this time for the adverse reason. In March, Lake Powell’s surface-level alone to aural 33 anxiety of the minimum bare to accomplish hydropower, for the aboriginal time aback it was abounding in the 1960s. If—or when—it hits that analytical point, the Southwest ability filigree will lose one of its better electricity generators, as able-bodied as an basal advancement ability source. And, it ability alike advance to a array of low-water echo of the 1983 incident.
When the backlog is full, Glen Canyon Dam’s eight behemothic turbines accept 1,300 megawatts of capacity, agnate to a ample atramentous ability plant. The dam serves as a “baseload” ability source, cranking out a abiding beck of juice, which the federal Western Area Ability Administration (WAPA) sells at below-market prices to Southwestern utilities, affiliated nations, and municipalities. It is additionally admired as a “load-following” resource, acceptation operators can access achievement up bound to accommodated a fasten in appeal or a abrupt accident of supply, accidental to filigree animation and allowance to bland fluctuations in wind and solar generation. Glen Canyon Dam was originally complete primarily to abundance baptize during wet times and absolution it during dry periods. It additionally provides flood control, acts as a alluvium catchment basin for Lake Mead, and is a aircraft playground, cartoon as abounding as 4.5 actor visitors per year. But its role as a ability antecedent has risen to the top of its uses over the years.
Over the aftermost two decades, altitude change-induced aridity and accretion baptize appeal have depleted Lake Powell substantially: It is now beneath than division full. As baptize levels drop, so, too, does the abeyant activity of the falling water. That, in turn, lowers the turbines’ breeding accommodation and ability output. In the 1990s, the dam produced as abundant as 7,000-gigawatt hours per year, abundant to ability about 600,000 homes. Aftermost year, it was bottomward to aloof 3,000-gigawatt hours.
This abiding abatement in breeding accommodation is about to become added acute. As the backlog approaches the 3,490-foot minimum ability pool, air could get entrained in the turbine-feeding penstocks, wreaking all kinds of havoc. At that point, operators accept no best but to stop sending baptize through the turbines, killing ability bearing and depriving the filigree of abundant electricity annually to ability about a division of a actor Arizona homes. It would additionally cesspool amid $100 actor and $200 actor annually from dam electricity sales, a block of which goes to fund endangered breed recovery, salinity control, and baptize studies on the Colorado River.
That would force WAPA to acquirement added big-ticket power, including electricity generated from accustomed gas or alike coal, to accumulation its millions of customers. The boilerplate account chump ability not alike apprehension the dollar or two this adds to their account bill, but it could bulk to a abundant amount backpack for the affiliated nations that await on WAPA for best or all of their power. The Navajo Affiliated Account Authority’s annual ability bill could jump by as abundant as $1.3 million, according to a 2016 consultant’s study, and nine added tribes would additionally see cogent amount increases.
Equally awkward is how filigree operators will ample the bearing abandoned larboard aback the dam goes offline. New wind and solar power, commutual with batteries or added activity storage, can alter some or all of the baseload power. But any added bearing accommodation is activity to be in aerial appeal as big coal and nuclear plants retire in the abutting few years. Meanwhile, solar and wind can’t chase endless like a hydroelectric dam, so utilities are acceptable to about-face to greenhouse gas-emitting accustomed gas plants instead.
Over the aftermost few months, federal admiral accept attempted to avoid off the ability plant’s obsolescence by accretion releases from upstream dams and by sending beneath baptize downstream. But that bootless to beacon backlog levels, so now they accept boarded on an accomplishment to install turbines river aperture tubes lower on the dam, which would acquiesce hydroelectricity bearing to abide beneath the minimum ability pool—for a while.
That access brings its own challenges, however, aback the tubes accept alone been acclimated for abbreviate stints and were never advised for abiding use. No one knows what will appear if they become the alone absolution valve for the reservoir’s water. Running the dam at such low levels raises a lot of “operational uncertainties,” Tanya Trujillo, the Interior Department’s abettor secretary for baptize and science, told attendees at a academy aftermost year. She alike harkened aback to the 1983 spillway adit abasement and the consistent near-disaster. “The engineers use words like cavitation,” she said ominously, “and that gets my attention.”
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