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Back to the budget brink

Jul 18, 2019

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Taking the hydro out of hydropower

Apr 8, 2015
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California is facing its worst drought in a thousand years, according the state’s energy commission. The Snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas, which Northern California counts on to replenish reservoirs, is 94% below average.  So what happens when there’s less water for hydropower?  

Normally, hydropower fuels 15%, on average, of California’s energy needs, primarily in the northern half of the state.  (The state’s Energy commission puts the figure at between 14% and 19%) So with less hydro? “It almost cuts it in half,” says Heather Cooley, director of the Water Program at the non-profit Pacific Institute.  She estimates hydropower’s contribution dropped to around 8%. 

 This has meant that over the past few years, California has had to turn to dirtier energy sources to make up for the loss.

 “Generating this electricity from other sources increased greenhouse emissions by up to 8 %,” says Cooley.

Hydropower is cheap, so replacing it has also cost the state.  Cooley estimates Californians have paid $1.4 billion extra for their power over the last three years.  Robert Weisenmiller, chair of California’s Energy Commission, says these effects will persist into next year, costing Californians another $300 million. 

“We will have somewhat dirtier air, somewhat higher prices of power, but the lights will stay on,” he says. Blackouts are not in the cards. 

For farmers in the central valley, Weisenmiller says “it’s a double whammy – higher energy prices and…less farming.”  Some farmers will have to spend more on energy to pump groundwater. 

California’s aggressive move towards renewables has, however, cushioned the blow.  “Solar and wind has more or less doubled, two and half times between 2012 and 2014,” says Weisenmiller. Without that, he says, emissions would be worse. 

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