Just like animals in times of abundance gather and store food for the leaner months, hydropower operators store water during wet months in preparation for drier conditions. Though squirrels may opt for underground storage, hydropower operators store water behind hydroelectric dams in large pools called reservoirs.
Not all dams have reservoirs. But the hydropower system operators work together to make the best use of the available storage and release water to meet multiple needs year round.
Serving multiple purposes, providing many benefits
Reservoirs enable reliability
Reservoirs act like giant batteries that provide energy when it’s needed. Hydropower operators use the stored water in the reservoirs behind the dam to adjust the amount of water flowing through the turbines to match electricity use. Power forecasters determine how much electricity will be needed over a given time period, and then communicate that to hydropower operators.
The consistent availability of hydropower also helps support other, more variable, types of renewable energy sources like wind. Dams can quickly ramp up to provide more electricity when the wind drops and can scale back generation when the wind picks up again.
Snowmelt and runoff from upstream mountains in the spring enable reservoirs to be filled. This stored water comes in handy during the drier months of the summer when water can be released to support energy demand and, in some instances, even reduce stream temperatures for the benefit of fish.
Work and play on a freshwater highway
Reservoirs also allow barges to move up and down the river, carrying all sorts of materials, from grain to wood chips to garbage. Wheat is brought from Idaho and Washington to Oregon and even overseas. Barges on the Columbia River move almost half of all the wheat from the entire United States.
The reservoirs created behind dams are also popular places for people to go fishing, swimming, boating and windsurfing.
Storage, spill and salmon
Water stored in reservoirs can also help hydropower operators support the seasonal needs of both young and adult salmon. In the winter and spring, operators help ensure salmon spawning grounds have enough water for spawning and to keep their nests (called redds) covered. In the spring and summer, extra water is spilled from the dams to help young fish move quickly downstream to the ocean. Releasing stored water also helps other wildlife, such as lamprey, which are an important cultural resource for some Northwest tribes.
Operating the Columbia River hydropower system to support all these needs is quite the balancing act, and having the storage capacity of reservoirs is critical to its success.