Hydropower is a great way to create electricity cheaply, efficiently and with very low carbon dioxide emissions.
But the problem is, well, the "hydro" part. What happens when there’s not enough water to make electricity?
Five things you need to know:
- Our most recent winter was one of the driest on record, which meant smaller snowpack in the mountains and less meltwater. That’s why in recent weeks, reduced water levels meant the shutdown of the Edward Hyatt Hydroelectric Power Plant at Lake Orville — one of the largest in our state.
- Hydropower from dams usually brings us 15% of California’s electricity, which means that when we lose it, we have to get our energy from somewhere else. The shortfall can be helped by wind and solar production, but the fact is that natural gas power plants — essentially a fossil fuel — are still largely in the mix, and it costs more. This means that it’s not just passed on to our bills, but it increases our states carbon dioxide emissions as well. Plus, when it gets hot, we yank up our air conditioning and demand even more electricity.
- All of this interrelated complexity is only going to get tougher as we head toward the goal of carbon-free electricity generation by 2045. And as California is in the grip of a mega-drought right now, the future is looking like a bit of a worry. Fortunately, we have smart minds at the California Department of Water Resources, who anticipate and plan for these moments because if you’re read this, it means you have electricity.
- But what of the future? Well, energy experts have a lot of suggestions, but one of the main ones is having a more resistant and connected electricity grid, so we can integrate decreased hydropower by sharing other states resources — such as wind power from Oregon and solar power from Nevada. Another main suggestion is increasing our state's ability to store energy, so we can keep it for the months when we most need it, to make up a shortfall of power.
- Whatever happens, energy demand is always going to be high, and as we look to a more electric future where cars and homes become things that we plug-in to charge — well, for now at least — it seems that as ancient as fossil fuel is, it’s going to be sticking around with us for quite a few years.