Is Hydroelectric Power a ‘Renewable’ Energy Source?

Most California hydro doesn’t count toward utilities’ renewable energy mandates. Should it?

Craig Miller

Tricky waters: a kayaker navigates the surge at the outlet of the Oxbow Powerhouse on the upper American River.

It’s a fair question and one that a reader posed during our recent series on “Water and Power” in California. Hydro has its virtues. It’s clean, once it’s built; producing hydropower creates no significant greenhouse gas or other emissions. And it’s certainly “renewable” as long as the water flows. But it’s not without its environmental impacts, especially where large “terminal” dams are involved (the kind that fish can’t get past).

In fact, state regulators divide the resource into “large” and “small” hydro, the latter being defined as anything producing 30 megawatts of power or less. Utilities can count small hydro toward their mandated Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) but not the bigger operations. But why?

Partly it’s because there is already so much hydro out there. In a wet year, Californians get about 17% of their electricity from hydro, not counting imports. The RPS is designed to encourage development of new sources, such as wind and solar.

In opposing a recent bill to count larger hydro facilities, The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a watchdog non-profit, wrote that such a reversal:

…would effectively reduce the RPS targets for utilities with existing large hydroelectric  generation in their portfolios and significantly undermine the impact of the RPS program on the development of new renewable energy projects in California and the West.

TURN estimated that changing the rules would effectively reduce California’s target of 33% renewables by 2020, to 30% — even less if utilities increased imports of hydropower from neighboring states.

TURN’s analysts also argued that an over-reliance on hydro could end up raising the retail cost of electricity. That’s not entirely theoretical. At least one report calculated added costs of over a billion dollars when utilities had to shift to more expensive natural gas during a recent dry spell.

The plot twist here is that hydro is an important helper to new “intermittent” renewables like wind and solar. Hydro output can be quickly and easily throttled up or down, to keep the electrical grid in balance as the sun and wind come and go.

  • Anonymous

     “Renewable” has become a political word.  The meaning depends on how it is being used.

    Hydropower projects convert the incoming energy of the sun to electrical energy in real time without using stored energy in fossil fuels, uranium, solid waste, geothermal resources  etc. As such they produce “renewable” energy just like wind and solar. 

    All renewable projects have environmental effects and certain special interests have decided that hydropower should not be classified as renewable whereas issues such as endangered raptors killed by the wind industry and toxics released by the solar cell industry in places like China have not prevented these technologies from being “Renewable”.  So the meaning of renewable has to match your ideaology. 

    Other renewable energy advocates are afraid that if existing economically attractive hydro is recognized as renewable – then the public may not be as supportive of subsidizing newer more expensive “renewable” energy technologies. All it really means is that California can set higher renewable energy targets if existing renewable energy is properly accounted for. 

    Why not take full credit for what exists instead of using semantics to create a “shortage” of renewable energy.

    The bottom line is that hydropower offers a clean, sustainable, renewable, efficient, economically attractive way to generate electricity. The dispatchibility and reliability of hydropower is needed to facilitate development of other non-dispatchible renewable options especially wind.

    Most hydropower generation in California is built on existing multi-use water supply facilities which are essential in our desert and  mediterranean.  They also provide recreation facilities such as campgrounds and streamflow for rafting throughout the summer when most of California’s rivers would otherwise drop to a trickle.   I have enjoyed camping at many of California’s multi-use lakes and reservoirs and gone rafting on flows provided by the reservoirs during the dry summer.   I have yet to book a vacation at a  natural gas combined cycle plant or wind farm.  The point here is that hydropower projects are multi-use projects that provide much more than electricity.  Much of California’s surface water infrastructure development benefits from renewable hydropower development which reduces the cost of water supply to citizens and taxpayers – who could use a break!

    I believe that we should conserve and enjoy the wonderful legacy of multi-use water supply/hydropower/recreation projects built by Californians for Californians and continue as good stewards of these facilities to modernize them and improve them for the Californians of the future.  Many 100s of additional megawatts of hydropower generation could be added to existing projects without the need for new dams on rivers at a fraction of the cost of other “renewable” energy options.  As stated before this would also facilitate wind development.  Hopefully old negative thinking, scare tactics and glib sound bites will not prevent Californians from benefiting from what belongs to them.

    The good news is that this is not an either-or issue.  We can have both.  We can conserve and improve our existing renewable hydropower generation and add new renewable energy technologies.

    So I appreciate your efforts to shed light on this issue.  I hope California gets this right.

  • Danielmcurtin

    Weird analysis from TURN. If you count existing Hydro, you can increase the renewable portfolio goal to reflect that. It would encourage multi-disciplinary thinking to blend our renewable energy needs with a rational global warming era water policy. Increased storage (above or below ground) could help sustain the Delta ecology, provide water for public use and provide renewable, clean energy.

    • Matthew Freedman

      The analysis quoted in this article was written in response to a legislative proposal to deduct large hydroelectric quantities from the retail sales figures used to determine Renewable Portfolio Standard obligations.  TURN suggested that the total RPS requirements could be expanded to compensate for the inclusion of large hydro but the legislator sponsoring this bill (Assemblymember Valadao) was not interested in making any additional adjustments to the program.  The bill (AB 1771) appears to be inactive at this time.

      Every year, a Republican member of the California legislature introduces a bill to include large hydroelectric power in the RPS program and each year the bill goes nowhere.  The sponsors of such bills never express any interest in making adjustments to the overall program to ensure that the targets are increased based on the addition of new hydroelectric power.  Each year, TURN points out that simply adding large hydro to the RPS program would effectively end the entire endeavor by allowing large utilities with significant hydro resources (such as PG&E) to instantly comply with the goals without making any additional purchases of renewable power.

      TURN believes that large hydroelectric plants are valuable resources that provide customers with low-cost and pollution-free electricity.  There is no need to include them in the RPS program to ensure that they continue to provide benefits to California customers.

      Matt Freedman
      The Utility Reform Network

      • David Keller

        This is an important discussion of the unintended but substantial issues with the existing RPS definitions.

        There are some significant problems with small hydro that still need to be addressed.  For example, PG&E’s archaic, century-old Potter Valley Project (PVP), producing a maximum of 9.2MW at  peak, was designed to divert substantial flows from the Eel River main stem into the East Branch of the Russian River.  It has always been a water-transfer project in the guise of a small hydro power project. 

        As a result of a century of “free” water transferred to fill Lake Mendocino for release to the Russian River, cities in Sonoma, Marin and southern Humboldt county have been able to grow and prosper, along with the burgeoning grape and pot industries.  Meanwhile, northern Mendocino County, Humboldt County and parts of Glenn and Lake County have lost substantial economic and cultural wealth: the once exceedingly abundant salmon and steelhead fisheries (commercial and recreational) have been decimated by the remaining low flows in the dry-season Eel River. These low flows, with resulting toxic algae blooms, proliferation of predatory pikeminnow, and the loss of year-round cold water flows downstream of the 2 dams of the PVP, have been insufficient to keep the Eel River healthy. 

        The dams, Scott Dam (Lake Pillsbury) and Cape Horn Dam (Van Arsdale Reservoir) impede fish passage, downstream replenishment of gravel for fisheries, and distort seasonal flows necessary for restoration of the Eel River’s salmonids.  PG&E has been a cooperative facilitator of the water transfer, even though the PVP is marginally profitable at best.  As Marc Reisner said, “water flows uphill towards money”, even when it’s a gravity drop from the Eel to the Russian.

        The existing requirements to qualify the PVP as meeting Renewable Portfolio Standards are insufficient to protect our state’s Public Trust resources heritage.  The PVP is damaging to both the Eel and Russian Rivers, and as a water supply and transfer project cannot be justified for a maximum yield of 9.2MW of power.

        We would be interested in working with TURN to develop standards for small hydro that don’t condemn salmonid headwater streams and rivers to permanent death in the interest of electrical power generation.