hydroelectric power

RECENT POSTS

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? Continue reading

Rethinking Hydropower

The bureaucratic, expensive and often contentious world of hydropower relicensing

This post is part of Climate Watch’s series, “Water and Power.”

Just so we all start on the same page: there are a lot of dams in California. People have been building dams here since the Gold Rush, and though the dam building boom of the first half of the 20th century is long-over, the dams are still here.

This animation shows all the dams in California. To see a breakdown of which ones are connected to hydropower projects (and which rivers in California remain undammed), explore the Water and Power map. Graphics produced by Don Clyde. Research by Lisa Pickoff-White.

When people began building dams in California, they probably were probably mostly thinking about gold. Later, they had more lofty ideals: controlling floods, supplying water to cities and farms, generating electricity.

One thing they probably weren’t thinking much about: pond turtles. Until recently. Continue reading

Hydropower With a Shrinking Snowpack

And why that could show up in your electric bill

We’ve mapped all of California’s hydropower dams as part of our series on “Water and Power.”

Craig Miller

PCWA's Ralston Powerhouse on the Rubicon River in Placer County. California typically gets about 15% of its electricity from hydro facilities inside the state..

While much is uncertain about California’s warming climate, there is little doubt that it’s already changing the fundamentals of how most of us get our water. In fact, the Bureau of Reclamation has estimated that the Sierra snowpack could be reduced by half as soon as a decade from now.

And that has some far-reaching implications that could even show up on your electric bill.

“When you hear people talk about a depleted snowpack, it’s because of warmer temperatures and the snow just cannot stay in the hills,” says Robert Shibatani, a hydrologist and consultant to numerous government agencies. He says the “hydrograph” for California — the “usual” pattern of precipitation and runoff — is already changing. “There’s no question about it,” he told me in a recent interview. “That’s not an if. It’s not even a when, because I can tell you the when. It’s happening now.” Continue reading

Salazar: Risky Times for Western Water

Interior Chief to California: Don’t allow significant water supply and infrastructure projects be derailed

Patrick McCully/Flickr

Demonstrators rally in 2006 for the removal of dams on the Klamath RIver.

Today at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar weighed in on three major water projects in the state and called on Californians to “stand firm” and defend the “hard-gained agreements and settlements” built in past decades.

“Never before have water agreements that provide safety and certainty for Westerners been so at risk,” said Salazar, referring to debates over the future of the San Joaquin River, the California Bay Delta, and the Klamath River.

Salazar argued that the state, and the country, should not back away from the 2006 San Joaquin River Restoration Program settlement, which, he said enabled the river to run from its headwaters to the ocean this year for the first time in half a century. He lobbied for the Bay Delta Conservation Plan, calling it a “comprehensive approach that includes new habitat for endangered fish species, coordinated measures to attack toxics that are fouling delta waters, and improvements to the state’s water infrastructure.” Continue reading