hydropower

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Why is Hydropower Relicensing So Complicated?

Unraveling the knot of hydropower development on the Yuba River

Molly Samuel/KQED

Englebright Dam is not part of any of the hydro projects on the Yuba River, but it's surrounded by them.

When most of the dams in California were built, there were few, if any, safety or environmental regulations governing how they operated. Now most hydropower projects, whether they’re owned by local agencies or power companies, need licenses from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC. (Federal projects don’t require FERC licenses.) Licenses are good for 30 to 50 years, and licensees don’t have to keep up with, for instance, environmental laws passed in the intervening years. So when a hydropower project does come up for relicensing, there’s a lot to catch up on.

I described some of the relicensing process in a radio story for The California Report for Climate Watch’s “Water and Power” series. Dennis Smith, the Hydropower Relicensing Manager for Region 5 for the Forest Service, gave me a taste of how complicated relicensing is when he showed me a flow chart [PDF] of how the process works. It has 39 boxes on it, each a discrete step. A typical application takes at least five years to complete. Some take much longer.

“You could have a child and he would be in the first grade by the time you got a license for a dam,” Smith said. 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

Two-Year Drop in California Carbon Emissions

PG&E substation near San Jose. The drop in emissions applied to both power generated in California and imported from neighboring states. (Photo: Craig Miller)

If you’re ready for some good news on the climate front: California’s carbon emissions from power generation dropped in 2009 and 2010.

That’s according to a new analysis from Thomson Reuters’ Point Carbon that looked at power generated here in California, as well as electricity imported from out of state.

According to the report (available by subscription only), emissions were down 12% over the study period. Part of the drop, not surprisingly, was due the global recession and the state’s slowed economy in 2009. But the study found that even when the economy started growing again, emissions continued to decline.

Sound mysterious? Not really, according to study co-author Ashley Lawson. Continue reading