Drought Seriously Threatens Hydro-Electric Power in California

Image: Frank Schulenburg via Wikimedia Commons

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

Ongoing heatwaves and mega-drought across the Western U.S. threatened residents with rolling blackouts and even buckling roads. Now, rapidly rising temperatures are taking their toll on renewable energy infrastructure as well. After suffering some of the lowest rainfall rates in 126 years, Northern California’s Edward Hyatt hydroelectric power plant is predicted to shut down for the first time since 1967 (a similar scenario is happening at Lake Mead). Experts say the shutdown could put severe pressure on the state’s power grid, especially as more Californians turn to A/C to cool from soaring temperatures.

Why This Matters: This shutdown could be the first of many, as the vicious cycle of warming, fire, drought, and rising power demand continues. To meet the goals of the Paris agreement, the nation needs to harness the full power of its renewable resources, but in the instance of hydropower, it could be seriously threatened by climate change in the near future.

Climate change is increasing our need for clean electricity in the summer while decreasing summertime hydro availability,” said Mohit Chhabra, a senior scientist in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Clean Energy Program. “To wean off-gas in the long term, we need to plan for how future electricity demand and clean electric supply (especially hydro) will be impacted by climate change.”

Stalled Water: The Edward Hyatt power plant runs on water from Lake Oroville, which has seen water levels decrease by 15% since last year, and 25% since July 2019. The plant provides 1,000 megawatts of power to the California power grid, but if the water levels, currently sitting at 655 feet, dip by just 35 more feet, that power could vanish. “Based on our May projections, we didn’t have 1,000 megawatts to lose,” Lindsay Buckley, director of communications and external affairs for the California Energy Commission, told E&E News. Should Hyatt shut down, the nearby Thermalito Plant is prepared to take over in a limited capacity, which should give Californians hope in the short term. 

Although the loss of power from the plant would account for only 1,000 megawatts of the state’s 44,000-megawatt demand, the state is worried enough that last week, Governor Gavin Newsom lifted environmental restrictions on natural gas-fired power plants.

Experts say that if renewables fail, more states may face pressure to increase reliance on fossil fuels, only perpetuating the vicious cycle. However, Chhabra says that the key to surviving hydroelectric shortages isn’t adding more fossil fuel to the fire but instead investing inefficient appliances and power-grid infrastructure. “Vulnerable Californians need to adapt to climate change too,” he said.

Dowsing Rods Make a Comeback: Some Californians have been turning to some desperate strategies to adapt, calling on “water witches” to hunt for water deep in the fractures of bedrock. These professional finders use a “forked stick, rod, pendulum, or similar device” to discover underground water with historically mixed results. Still, in the face of failing crops and devastating drought, many farmers can’t afford hydrogeologists and well drillers to evaluate their land. Instead, water witches like Rob Thompson have been called upon to save California agriculture. Despite critics who say that hiring water witches is a waste of time and money, growers like Doug Hill, who manages several vineyards in Napa Valley, say it’s worked out so far, explaining, “seeing is believing, right?”

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