Hydropower Must be Defined as Zero-Carbon Energy

  • by Steven LaMar & Pamela Tobin
  • Sep 18, 2020
  • Voices on Water

Continuing heatwaves in California make it clear that rolling blackouts – something the state had not experienced since the 2001 energy crisis – remain a concern when experiencing record temperatures driven by climate change. 

We know from recent experience that one important factor leading to rolling blackouts was the inherent limitations of certain types of renewable power, particularly wind and solar. On a scorching summer day when the air is still and the demand for power rises with the heat into the evening, other sources of clean energy become even more critical. 

One such source is hydroelectric energy, or power generated by moving water. Hydroelectric energy is clean, renewable, easily dispatchable, and readily available any time of the day or night. Many of the state’s local water agencies generate hydroelectric power with the water they release from reservoirs for farms, communities and the environment. Most importantly for the state’s energy security, they can increase power generation when extra power is needed most.

Northern California’s Yuba Water Agency responded to rolling blackouts last month by adjusting its operations to deliver an additional 20 megawatts of electricity to the state’s grid, keeping 20,000 homes and businesses with power. Yuba Water is just one of many member agencies of the statewide Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) that operates hydropower facilities. Another ACWA member, Turlock Irrigation District, ramped up hydroelectric generation at its Don Pedro Power House to nearly 20,000 megawatt hours between Aug. 10 – 24, leaving its service area unaffected by rolling blackouts and further lessening pressure on the grid.

They and other hydropower operators quickly responded to the impending crisis by increasing their generation of more clean energy to support the people and businesses of this state. 

While it is clear that access to hydroelectric energy has been essential to the state in responding to each threat of an energy crisis, the future for hydropower is yet to be determined. The California Energy Commission, California Public Utilities Commission and California Air Resources Board are currently in the midst of implementing one of the most ambitious climate goals in the world, from SB 100, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018. SB 100 calls for 100% of California energy to be either renewable or zero-carbon by 2046. However, this new law does not define which types of energy would be considered as zero-carbon. These state agencies are currently considering inclusion of large hydro as a zero-carbon resource and are open to further consideration of hydro as a part of the state’s energy mix in the future. As the recent blackouts have painfully illustrated, hydropower must be defined as zero-carbon energy for the energy security of our state. 

As California continues to address the impacts of climate change, water managers will often be at the forefront of this effort. ACWA has long advocated for hydroelectric energy as a clean and readily available resource that is essential to the state’s clean energy portfolio. Its importance is even more profound in times of crisis when, used in tandem with other clean energy resources such as wind and solar, increased generation of hydroelectricity can quickly fill resource gaps to help maintain energy reliability. California must act now to preserve the long-term viability of this essential asset for the state’s clean energy future by formally recognizing hydropower as a zero-carbon resource.

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