Exploring the potential for inadvertent impacts to freshwater ecosystems from the energy transition


Wind power integration and streamflow patterns below dams.

There is increasing awareness of the negative impacts electric power generation can have on freshwater ecosystems, through consumptive loss of instream flows, thermal pollution, and disruption of natural flow regime. The operations of hydroelectric dams can be especially harmful, since they disrupt a range of physico-chemical and biological processes that are important for the success of native species in river ecosystems. Some of these negative impacts can be traced back to the reservoir release strategies of dam operators, which try to align periods of reservoir discharge (hydropower production) with the hours of greatest demand for that electricity (i.e., the highest price).

But due to the uptake of new technologies and efforts to reduce carbon emissions, the underlying generation “mix” of electric power systems is changing rapidly— and with it, electricity price dynamics. This means that the financial signal that dam operators have long followed to determine the timing of reservoir releases is also being altered. A still open question is how hydroelectric dams will be used in the grid of the future (i.e., one dominated by renewable energy), and how this will impact sensitive river ecosystems — for better (figure below) or worse (figure above).

The cost of implementing environmental flow restrictions at hydroelectric dams over time.

We are interested in understanding how the changing energy landscape (i.e., low natural gas prices due to horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”, as well as the increased role of wind and solar power, and eventually grid scale energy storage) could present new challenges for conservation proponents– or in some cases, open new opportunities to reduce the impacts of dams at a lower cost. To answer these types of questions, we build models of both water resource systems and electric power systems that simulate how changing technology in the energy sector alters decision-making at dams.

Relevant Papers:

Anindito, Y., Haas, J., Olivares, M.A., Novak, W., Kern, J.D. (2019). “A new solution to mitigate hydropeaking? Batteries versus re-regulation reservoirs.” Journal of Cleaner Production. Vol. 210, pp. 477-489.

Kern, J.D., Characklis, G.W. (2017). “Low Natural Gas Prices and the Financial Cost of Ramp Rate Restrictions at Hydroelectric dams.” Energy Economics. Vol. 61, pp. 340-350.

Kern, J.D., Patino-Echeverri, D., Characklis, G.W. (2014). “An Integrated Reservoir-Power System Model for Evaluating the Impact of Wind Power Integration on Hydropower Resources.” Renewable Energy, Vol. 71, November 2014, pp. 553-562.

Kern, J.D., Patino-Echeverri, D., Characklis, G.W. (2014). “The Impacts of Wind Power Integration on Sub-Daily Variation in River Flows Downstream of Hydroelectric Dams.” Environmental Science and Technology.Vol. 48, No. 16, pp. 9844-9851.

Kern, J.D., Characklis, G.W., Doyle, M.D., Blumsack, S. and R.B. Whisnant (2012). “The Influence of Deregulated Electricity Markets on Hydropower Generation and Downstream Flow Regime” Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, Vol. 138, No. 4: pp. 342-355