Unraveling the knot of hydropower development on the Yuba River
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 Reportfor 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 →
Most California hydro doesn’t count toward utilities’ renewable energy mandates. Should it?
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 →
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 →
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 →
A natural gas power plant in Long Beach that uses "once-through" cooling.
We hear a lot about how green our energy is in California. Instead of using coal, the state runs on natural gas and increasingly, renewable power.
But there’s a hidden cost to our energy supply: water use. In fact, every time you turn on a light, it’s like turning on your faucet. It’s been calculated that it takes 1.5 gallons of water to run a 100-watt light bulb for 10 hours.
The way water and power work together is a lot like a tea kettle. Steam drives the power industry.
How Power Needs Water
You can see it at the Gateway Generating Station, a natural gas power plant in the northeast Bay Area. The plant looks complicated but making power is pretty simple. Step number one: burn natural gas. That produces a lot of heat.
“You’ve got 1,700-degree exhaust energy, or waste heat,” says Steve Royall of PG&E, who is giving me a tour through the maze of pipes and compartments. The heat hits pipes that are filled with water and the water is boiled off to create steam. That’s step number two: make steam to turn a steam turbine, which is attached to a generator. It’s the water that’s making the power.
Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Illustration by Andy Warner.
When you open that faucet, it’s more than water that’s flowing.
A few years back, number crunchers at the California Energy Commission tried to add up how much electrical power (and other forms of energy) goes into using water in California. The bottom line number they came up with: 19%. That is, nearly a fifth of all the power generated in California — as well as huge quantities of natural gas and diesel fuel consumed in the state — goes into water-related uses. You might call that report, entitled California’s Water-Energy Relationship, as The Great Wake-Up Call. The idea that so much power could go into this one vital activity—moving and treating and using water—is both stunning and captivating. And it has spurred both state agencies and water and power utilities into action.
Graphic by Andy Warner
The California Public Utilities Commission, responsible for overseeing the activities of the state’s big investor-owned electric utilities on one hand and numerous small water providers on the other, responded to the 19% number by authorizing a series of pilot projects to assess how to cut the amount of power used in connection with water. Since the CPUC is supposed to make sure that utility investments are cost-effective and don’t burden ratepayers with excessive charges, the focus of most of the pilots was on areas where utilities could get the most bang for the buck. Mostly, that turns out to be water conservation. Continue reading →