California’s reliance on hydropower is shifting to its mix of renewable energy resources, natural gas and energy efficiency strategies.
Due to extremely high temperatures, California’s hydro plants are drying out and as a result are generating less power.
The state has capacity to produce more electricity from hydro than any other US state except Washington and Oregon. However, last year, California hydro generation totaled only 23.9 million megawatt-hours, according to the US Energy Information Administration. This is the lowest level since the drought years of 1991 and 1992. Over the past 30 years, hydro has made up an average of 14% of California's electricity mix. This dropped significantly to 9% in 2013.
However, according to Edward Randolph, director of the energy division of the California Public Utilities Commission, there are ample resources to meet California’s demand.
California has invested in new energy sources and has taken steps to make its system more reliable during crisis situations. Regulations now require utilities to procure, ahead of time, reserve electricity at least 15% in excess of their forecasted demand. This helps utilities to ensure that there is enough power to meet demands during worst-case scenarios.
Wind and solar projects are on the increase. In 2013 alone, California’s renewable generating capacity escalated by more than 20% with the addition of 3.3GW.
Heather Cooley, co-director of the water program at the Pacific Institute points out that California is in a better place now that a larger portion of their energy is generated from renewables that don’t need water.
Natural gas resources-not sustainable
California has been turning to gas for a more stable supply when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing. Gas is currently providing about 46% of California’s electricity consumption, according to the latest US Energy Information Administration figures. This has jumped from an average of 37% over the last decade.
However, replacing hydropower (and solar and wind) with gas means higher emissions and procurement costs for utilities. In addition to this, natural gas supplies are dwindling.
The answer here will be energy storage and the State is working hard to develop this. California has literally created a market overnight by issuing an energy storage mandate in order to harness the full potential of its renewables development as well as provide better energy security. Read Engerati: California’s Energy Storage Mandate-Will Others Follow?
Preparing for climate change
Drought has affected shaken energy systems around the world in recent years, from Brazil, to France, to China. In Panama, where hydroelectricity contributes more than half of all electricity generation, the government ordered power rationing last year after declaring a drought emergency spanning one-third of the country.
While resources remain adequate for now, California certainly faces growing reliability challenges and higher rates if more is not done to boost electricity supply in the face of global climate change.
Many countries could learn a great deal from this state’s energy development journey.