California's Drought Is Decimating Hydropower—Guess What’s Taking Its Place

With hydropower dams unable to meet electricity demand, fossil fuels are taking up the slack.

View of Shasta Dam in California. (Photo: Danita Delimont/Getty Images)

 

Oct 7, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Like unraveling octopus tentacles, the influence of California’s years-long drought seems to wriggle through the state in search of new avenues to affect, and this time, it’s electricity.

The less rain, the less hydroelectric energy the state can produce, says a new report released on Monday by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Sure enough, with California’s reservoirs at 52 percent of their historic average for this time of year, power coming from hydroelectric dams has been cut in half.

California typically gets about 20 percent of its power from hydroelectric plants, but that number is at a 10-year low, with dams producing only about 10 percent of the state’s power this year. That’s left an energy gap for natural gas-fueled power plants to fill—and they have. Though natural gas is considered less of a bane to the climate than coal because it produces less carbon dioxide when burned, it is itself a greenhouse gas—and more potent than CO2, although shorter-lived in the atmosphere.

Current hydropower generation in California compared to the 10-year average.

(Illustration: Courtesy U.S. Energy Information Administration)

A chart EIA produced shows the inverse relationship between the state’s hydro and natural gas-fired energy production: When monthly hydropower generation dips, monthly natural gas generation often rises.

“From January through June of 2014, natural gas generation in California was 3 percent higher compared to the same period in 2013, and 16 percent higher compared to the January-June average from the previous 10 years,” EIA’s report stated.

The result? The state is forced to lean more on nonrenewable fossil fuels to meet their power needs. And that could be a problem as Gov. Jerry Brown works to meet his own law to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

Add the hydro woes to the permanent shutdown of California’s San Onofre nuclear power plant—removing another 18 billion kilowatt-hours of carbon-free electricity from the grid—the state’s got its work cut out.

But the drought’s halving of one renewable energy source is pushing two others to new heights in California’s energy generation mix: Both wind and solar generation have seen increases in production this year, and for the first time, wind power outpaced hydropower in California’s energy mix, in February and March.

And by midafternoon on clear sunny days, solar power can supply the state with 14 percent of its needs.

“Natural gas may have more demand now due to the drought, but in the long term, the main driver in California’s energy plans is the Renewables Portfolio Standard that the state has to meet,” said Michelle Bowman, operations research analyst at EIA. That portfolio is state-mandated, and requires California’s energy and electric service providers to buy 33 percent of their power from plants running on renewable energy sources.

Even with the drought sapping the state of hydropower, thanks to recent capacity increases in renewables and natural gas generation California Independent System Operator, the state’s grid operator, expects to meet demand and avoid power shortages.