California Drought Could Take a Toll on Electricity Supply

Shasta Dam generates hydropower, controls floods and provides water to the Central Valley Project. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)
Shasta Dam generates hydropower, controls floods and provides water to the Central Valley Project. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

California's deepening drought could have an effect on the electricity supply.

Hydropower, which accounts for about 14 percent of the state's power, comes from the mountains: reservoirs trap the snow as it melts, when the water is released it spins turbines and voila, electricity. But reservoir levels are well below normal, stream flows are down to a trickle, and the snowpack is, frankly, pathetic.

There's no cause for concern about shortages, according to Steven Greenlee, a spokesman with the California Independent System Operator, which manages California's grid.

"We're used to balancing supply and demand whenever we have a sudden loss of a resource," he said, pointing out that they deal with power plants and transmission lines going down all the time. But, he added, rates could go up.


"With less hydroelectricity on the grid, which is a very cost-efficient and effective resource, we may have to run more natural gas units, and natural gas is a bit higher in its base price," Greenlee said.

More natural gas also means more air pollution, though Greenlee said solar and wind energy will also help make up for the decrease in hydropower.

Drought is something utilities know to plan for in California, as the Sacramento Bee explained:

Utilities are also being a lot more careful about running their hydro plants, holding off as much as possible until summer.

“We can hold onto water and use it during the summer,” said Paul Moreno, spokesman for Pacific Gas and Electric Co. “We are managing our available water resources so this summer we’ll be able to deliver power.”

WarnerPowerAndWater300We explored the connection between water and power in California in a series couple years ago, and especially dug into how a shrinking snowpack could affect electricity rates.

The years 2007-09 were dry, for example, and in those years, Juliet Christian-Smith from the Pacific Institute calculated the cost, both financial and environmental:

She ran the numbers and found that as utilities were forced to switch some of the load to natural gas-fired plants to make up the difference, “The cost to electricity consumers was about $1.7 billion dollars.” That’s billion, with a “B.” And here are some more billions from the same time frame: 13 billion additional tons of carbon dioxide emissions because, well, burning natural gas emits CO2 and hydropower does not. Christian-Smith says that, “Given the impact of this drought on our energy production possibilities and the costs that we had to pay for energy, it’s important to think about what a longer and more severe drought might do.”