Adapting Hydropower Operations to Support Renewable Energy Transitions and Freshwater Sustainability in the Columbia River Basin; Social Effects of Dam Construction

Allen, Genevieve, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Baritaud, Catherine, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia
Quinn, Julianne, EN-CEE, University of Virginia

Greenhouse gas emissions from non-renewable energy sources are growing at an alarming rate, causing extreme temperatures and climate conditions to occur; engineers must create and refine energy systems to protect the environment, as well as the general public, by expanding the use of renewable energy sources. The technical research consists of developing a 100% clean hydroelectric system for the Columbia River Basin. Our designed system effectively maximizes hydropower output and economic benefits, while also minimizing environmental consequences. The STS research deals with the social effects of dam construction and hydropower operations on local Native American tribes and communities. Specifically referring to the construction of the original hydroelectric system in the Columbia River Basin which caused thousands of tribe members to relocate, permanently altered their homes and sacred areas, as well as negatively affected their way of life and food sources. The technical and STS research are directly coupled, because in redesigning this area to be more environmentally friendly, I am preserving the region’s landscape and ecology as well as protecting salmon and steelhead populations – important aspects of Native American daily life and culture. In order to create a long-lasting energy model, my team produced a system that is economically beneficial, environmentally safe, and socially conscious.
To effectively re-model the design of alternative hydropower operations in the Columbia River Basin for a more renewable grid, my technical research team ran two loosely-coupled models: the California Power Systems model (CAPOW) and a reservoir systems model. These models have 1000 years of synthetically generated weather and energy mixes as their inputs and additional components within them, such as the streamflow temperature model, the Vancouver water level model, and an electricity price model that emulates the power system model output. This entire model generates a series of outputs, including reservoir operations that maximize hydropower output and BPA revenue, in addition to minimizing environmental spills violations, peak flood height, and moderate flood frequency. These operations are optimized by a multi-objective evolutionary algorithm that finds different policies that trade-off performance on these objectives in different ways. The multi-objective optimization yielded 19 alternative reservoir operating policies whose performance we evaluated across three climate scenarios. After the generation of parallel axis multi-objective tradeoff plots, policy 10 was selected as the optimal policy because it has the least significant tradeoff between my model’s objective functions, including maximizing BPA revenue and hydropower output, while minimizing environmental spills, flood height, and flood frequency.
The STS research question is: how do we ensure that the construction of dams and other hydropower systems does not overwhelmingly alter the lives of those living in communities near these structures while still producing ample energy? In order to answer this question, I developed an STS framework based on Pinch and Bijkers’ “Social Construction of Technology Model.” This framework requires engineers to evaluate the social consequences of their hydropower design and re-evaluate their model if these consequences are too great. In my project, I wanted to combat the noted issues of interference in Native American culture in addition to the ecological costs of hydroelectric systems. Therefore, I developed a system including the design’s effects on fish populations, community layout, local waterways and landscape, and sacred tribal grounds.
Supporting my framework detailed above, there are several concrete solutions that I developed in order to effectively evaluate my hydroelectric system. First, I developed a streamflow temperature model, which predicts future streamflow levels and temperatures and identifies times when hydropower operations would cause unsuitable habitats for migrating salmon so preventative measures can occur. Secondly, I did extensive academic research on the historical effects of the original Columbia River Basin construction on local tribes, such as community relocations and tribal grounds destruction. Therefore, in future developments, these same mistakes can be avoided through fair communications in the planning process and reforms to the already existing Columbia River Treaty. Lastly, monitoring and predicting flood heights and frequencies at influential reservoirs will ensure public safety for these communities as well as protect local waterways and landscapes.
The expansion of hydroelectric systems is essential to combat global climate change, but it is important to understand the drastic social effects these systems can have. As seen in the Columbia River Basins, dozens of tribes and thousands of Native Americans’ home lives and traditions were permanently altered. In order to create a better future, engineers have an overarching responsibility to society to make innovative and equitable technology systems.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Hydropower, Energy, SCOT, Sustainability

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Civil and Environmental Engineering
Technical Advisor: Julianne Quinn
STS Advisor: Catherine Baritaud
Technical Team Members: Sin Lin, Asher Llewellyn, Adi Pillai, Elynore Zarsyski

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