Societal Dimensions: Current Research

Evaluating Climate Change Impacts on Hydropower Production in Idaho’s Hells Canyon Complex



Idaho’s Hells Canyon complex consists of three electric power-producing dams on the Snake River (Hells Canyon, Brownlee, and Oxbow). These dams have a combined average capacity of 526 megawatts (MW).

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is in the process of re-licensing most of the privately owned dams in the Columbia River basin. In particular, the Hells Canyon dams are in the early stages of re-licensing (new licenses are due in 2005). Therefore an opportunity currently exists for climate change to be included in the licensing process. This micro study can be expected to provide results that can lead to a macro study, and which will be most useful for the FERC process.

An examination of the streamflow patterns projected for the Hells Canyon complex in the 2020s and 2040s as a result of climate change indicates a shift in streamflow (Figure 1) typical of those portrayed for snowmelt-dominated rivers in the Pacific Northwest. These flows would in turn affect the timing and amount of hydropower generation at the complex.

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Hells Canyon Flows

Figure 1 Projected climate change impacts on streamflow at Hells Canyon (Idaho) dam.

This analysis examines the likely economic effects of climate change (note: we know nothing about how/whether climate variability will change in the future) as expressed through the existing institutional and economic structure of hydropower production and water management in the Hells Canyon Complex. The path of the analysis follows the flow of water (its volume and the timing of its delivery) from climate change simulations through the VIC regional hydrology model and the ColSim model of reservoir operations in the Snake/Columbia system (Hamlet and Lettenmaier 1999). Using alternative climate scenarios, we can predict changes in the amount and timing of hydroelectric production and hence changes in the value of economic output from the facility. This will be done for a base case and for each of several alternative policies and under different forecast price assumptions.

Research Questions

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