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Grid Integration: Hydropower's Role in the Next-Generation Grid

NREL's hydropower researchers perform cutting-edge research in multiple aspects of grid integration research, including hydropower's role in grid planning, operations modeling, reliability and resilience research, and how hydropower connects to other sectors.

NREL is the only national laboratory able to perform interconnection-wide grid operations modeling and analysis at nodal resolution and dispatch timescales—an important capability for understanding the full value of both hydropower and pumped storage hydropower. This expertise is leveraged from our previous successes with wind and solar integration research and applied to the hydropower industry.

Photo of wind turbines on a hill above a hydropower dam.

Water-Energy Nexus

NREL leads the Water Risk for the Bulk Power System: Asset to Grid Impacts GMLC project. This effort aims to improve the reliability and resilience of the power sector by enabling utilities to evaluate impacts and risks associated with water resources.

Working with both industry and other national laboratories, we will create an analysis platform that can provide environmental and economic benefits by aiding short-term operational and long-term investment decisions.

Our researchers work with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to help them meet their 100% renewable energy goal while ensuring they have a reliable and resilient grid and municipal water system under a variety of high renewables scenarios. One of the key aspects of NREL's work is presenting the role that pumped storage hydropower can play in helping the department meet its goals.


Jordan Macknick

Researcher V – NREL's Water Hub Lead

Hydropower's Role in Grid Planning

NREL's grid planning researchers work to improve hydropower's representation and its ability to provide high capacity, extended-duration storage in capacity expansion models—a capability that is becoming increasingly important as renewable penetrations increase.

We utilize two models:

Regional Energy Deployment System (ReEDS): NREL's flagship capacity planning model for the North American electricity system.

Resource Planning Model (RPM): NREL's capacity expansion model designed for a regional power system.

The ReEDS model helps stakeholders to understand hydropower's contributions from a national perspective, and RPM helps to inform decisions at the utility service territory, state, or balancing authority level.


Stuart Cohen

Researcher IV – Model Engineering

Hydropower's Role in Grid Operations

Like our work in capacity expansion planning, NREL works to improve hydropower's representation grid operations modeling.

North American Renewable Integration Study

NREL's research in this area spans multiple scales—from the North American Renewable Integration Study (NARIS) that looks at hydro's ability to enable ever increasing amounts of clean energy—to investigating how small, cascading hydro can be operated so that plants meet revenue objectives without significantly impacting a river's natural flows.

NARIS' hydropower research helps the water power industry understand the value of hydropower and pumped storage hydropower to an evolving, North American grid.  The study will help identify aspects of flexibility that will be valuable in the future grid so new technologies can be tailored to provide enhanced grid value.

Additional Research Projects

NREL researches the value of new pumped storage hydropower technologies and projects from the perspective the developer, owner, and operator—helping each to better understand the worth of their investments.

For our ternary project, we worked with the developer, Absaroka Energy and their equipment provider, General Electric Renewable Energy, to investigate the value of ternary pumped storage to the Pacific Northwest and California markets.

In our Obermeyer Hydro project, we supported Obermeyer in their efforts to design and site an easy-to-install turbine that is expected to markedly reduce civil works costs.

We also worked closely with Natel Energy to develop a control strategy for operating a series of small, low-impact, cascading hydro plants so that the plants would meet revenue objectives without significantly impacting a river's natural flows—addressing a critical environmental concern and providing the possibility of using small-scale hydropower for stream restoration.

Additionally, NREL is working to develop the next generation of grid operation simulation software. This research, which is part of DOE's Water Power Technology Office's HydroWIRES initiative and NREL's Scalable Integrated Infrastructure Planning (SIIP) Project, will:

  • Integrate river-basin and reservoir operations water models into the SIIP grid operations framework
  • Improve hydropower's representation in grid operations models
  • Allow both the near-term and seasonal value of water to be included in grid dispatch decisions.

We are leveraging techniques learned in our integrated energy system and ReEDS capacity expansion work to benefit hydropower.


Greg Stark

Researcher V – Hydropower Technical Lead

Hydropower's Role in Reliability and System Resiliency

The NREL hydropower team works in several areas of reliability and resilience research.

For both the ternary and Obermeyer projects, we evaluated how the addition of the pumped storage hydropower projects would improve the resilience of the grid, and we developed a new dynamic presentation of the ternary unit so that the full capabilities of the technology are well-represented in the transient analysis.

Leading the Department of Energy's Extreme Events research, NREL also investigates hydropower's role in providing grid power during times of extreme weather events.

NREL is also a key member of the Office of Electricity's North American Energy Resilience Model project—helping to ensure abundant, reliable, and affordable energy.


Tessa Greco

Water power special projects Lead