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California Turns to Natural Gas as Drought Stifles Hydroelectric Power

The California drought, which is in its third year and continues to impact many different aspects of the state's ecosystem, is showing no signs of improvement.

Concerns are being raised about how the drought is negatively affecting the state's emission goals by hampering the ability to rely on hydroelectricity, which is a cleaner, less expensive form of electricity.

The drought is forcing utility companies to seek alternatives for electricity needs and ,in many cases, that means turning to conventional power plants burning natural gas, leading to a rise in emissions according to a recent San Francisco Chronicle article.

The paper reported that after years of declining, the state's greenhouse gas emissions rose 1.7 percent in 2012 due to the drought and the closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant in San Diego County. Data from 2013 has not been released yet.

"Less water, means we've had less hydropower available to us," said Paul Moreno, a spokesperson for Pacific Gas and Electric, which operates 68 hydroelectric plants. "However, we've been banking water in our reservoirs, by generating less power during the spring, so we have more power available to us during the peak demand periods of summer and that's been very helpful for us."

Moreno said all of the PG&E plants have been impacted by the drought to some degree, some worse than others. However, their power plants in the northern part of the state actually rely on water that comes primarily from large underground aquifers.

"So, much of our area has been less impacted by the drought this year," Moreno said. "Still, power plants in the Sierra Nevada region have had much less water available and that has meant we've been able to generate less hydroelectric power."

Moreno added that they've been fortunate to have other sources of power to draw from.

As part of the California Renewables Portfolio Standard, the state has developed an ambitious plan to have 33 percent of its energy come from renewables by 2020, including other sources such as solar and wind power.

But wind and solar power can be costlier and also tend to produce an intermittent power output because the amounts of wind and sunshine can vary, Moreno said.

Hydro is one of the cheapest forms of electricity because most of the costs come up front in the form of building the facilities, but once they are up and running, there is minimal cost.

"Less hydro generally means make-up power from gas which has a higher cost," said Victor Niemeyer, program manager for greenhouse gas reductions at the Electric Power Research Institute. "Over the long term, the higher costs are recovered from consumers through monthly bills, but how soon and how much will depend on individual utility rate making rules."

Niemeyer said that when you have less water you have different patterns of flows and the biggest and most important impact is that you have to get the power from other sources.

"The only sources that are really flexible, that you can either turn up or turn down, are fuel-based and that's gas or coal in the western region," he said.

According to the California Energy Commission there are nearly 400 hydroelectric plants in California. Many of which are located in the state's eastern mountain ranges. Hydroelectricity production ranges from 14-19 percent of the state's total electricity.

In 2006, Assembly Bill 32, The California Global Warming Solutions Act, was enacted and it required the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. California is not in danger of missing its emissions goals, because according to the Commission, "If more natural gas is needed to replace hydropower in the coming years due to the drought and it results in increased emissions, utilities must still reduce emissions or procure compliance instruments."

According to the Commission, in addition to less rainfall, the state experienced less snowpack in the mountains and an earlier snowmelt. As of April 2014, three of the state's primary hydroelectric reservoirs were significantly below their historical average, including the Shasta Dam, which was at 65 percent of average.

The state also imports an estimated 3-4 percent of its total hydroelectricity from the Pacific Northwest, which is projecting surpluses through 2018, according to the Commission. It also imports from the Hoover Dam, in the Southwest and conditions for that region are stable through 2015.

"Much of the year, and on balance, California imports power from other states. Some of this is hydro from the Northwest and British Columbia," Niemeyer said. "In the winter, when California loads are low and hydro flows in the Northwest are low as well, California often exports power to the Northwest."

If a strong El Niño season were forecast for the fall, that might provide more opportunities for beneficial rain in California.

However, only a weak to perhaps moderate El Niño is forecast to develop, according AccuWeather.com Lead Long-Range Forecaster Paul Pastelok.

In a recent blog post, AccuWeather.com Western Weather Expert Ken Clark wrote, "A weak El Niño does not correlate nearly as well to above-normal precipitation as a moderate or strong El Niño."

"It is entirely possible that this coming rainy season could bring lower than normal rainfall [if there is only a weak El Niño]," Clark wrote.

Clark said that it is unlikely that the drought will go away in one year and that "it may get worse before it gets any better."

"It is highly doubtful it could go away in two years of higher-than-normal rain," he said.