Energy, Environment, Featured, Uncategorized

Intermittent energy sources on the rise in Colorado; more hydropower can help with that

As global energy demand continues to increase, generating abundant energy becomes increasingly important.  To meet this increased need, as well as the state’s ambitious clean energy goals, Colorado must focus on developing affordable electricity for all.

And more hydropower is what Colorado needs.

Hydropower facilities vary in size, ranging from a huge facility like the Hoover Dam to a small river facility. They often generate electricity through water flow and elevation differences from various reservoirs.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hydropower currently accounts for 37% of total U.S. renewable energy electricity generation, which makes it one of the country’s largest sources of renewable energy. In Colorado, hydropower only accounts for 8% of renewable energy production, but there are opportunities for hydropower to grow.

There are currently around 1500 hydro plants operating in the US, and 40 of them are Pumped Storage Hydropower (PSH).

PSH is like a “green rechargeable battery,” according to the International Hydropower Association. The IHA estimates PSH facilities worldwide can store up to 9,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity. It stores energy by pumping water from a lower to a higher reservoir, and then releases the water downhill when the power is needed.

The rapid growth of intermittent power sources such as solar and wind energy requires a reliable storage solution. PSH can store the electricity that is generated from this energy source for later use. When these intermittent sources are unavailable and there is a high demand, the hydro plant releases water from the higher reservoir to drive a turbine and supply electricity.

The recent news of possible energy shortages in the summer of 2023 reflects that more energy production and stable storage is needed in Colorado. PSH, which currently accounts for 93% of utility scale energy storage, could provide the necessary storage to combat future energy shortages.

In the U.S., hydropower is also one of the cheapest energy sources, as it is produced for an average of 0.85 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh). This is equivalent to 50% of the cost of nuclear, 40% of the cost of fossil fuel, and 25% the cost of natural gas. Once these facilities are installed, the energy is generated through the natural flow of water, which has zero cost.

Hydro prices do not need to depend on the fluctuation of fuel costs. When pumping water to a higher reservoir, PSH utilizes minimal renewable energy such as wind or solar during non-peak hours, which further minimizes environmental and financial costs.

The lower cost for hydropower is also shown through facilities’ longer lifetime and minimal maintenance costs. Although some may argue that significant up-front costs are why hydropower facilities should not be invested in, the National Hydropower Association finds that by taking into account that these facilities can operate for more than 50 years, the costs spread over a longer time frame.

Independent research also suggests that hydropower has helped avoid more than “100 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the past 50 years alone,” exceeding even the emissions saved by nuclear power. This is like 20 years of the total carbon footprint in the U.S.

In 2021, Colorado State Representative Hugh McKean and Senator Rob Woodward helped pass House Bill 21-1052, which defined hydroelectricity as renewable energy. It removed existing restrictions on hydroelectric facilities and officially recognized the benefits of hydropower.

Companies like Xcel Energy and the Bureau of Reclamation have since announced that they are pursuing hydropower plants over the next decade. Xcel announced in January a plan to build a PSH facility in Unaweep Canyon to expand its hydroelectric power.

According to Colorado Sun reporting, this project doubles the production of energy compared with two other existing PSH projects- Cabin Creek and Mt. Elbert. The number of megawatts (MW) produced will increase from 324 MW to 800 MW per day, serving around 326,000 families.

Building PSH facilities not only provides more energy, but it also brings in recreational opportunities and municipal water storage to the community. Hydropower’s numerous advantages reflect that it has great potential in the future.

With the increasing energy demand and the goal to provide 100% clean energy by 2050, Colorado should continue to support hydropower.

Franny Shih is studying environmental economics at the the University of California, Berkeley. This summer, Franny is an energy and environmental policy intern at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.


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