Despite Diminished Hydroelectric Capacity, California Remains a Renewable Energy Leader


Californians are about to head into another month of the state’s worst drought on record with 98 percent of the state experiencing some drought intensity. Water restrictions are still in place, with several districts enforcing mandatory cuts. Yet, in a state that holds 14 percent of the nation’s hydroelectric generating capacity, cities and neighborhoods have not gone dark. That is because California utilizes a diverse set of electricity production methods to meet its demands, especially solar and wind generation. Additionally, the state’s Resource Adequacy program requires Load Serving Entities, or electricity companies, to establish load reserves of 15 percent—a safeguard against disruption to the grid from changes in electricity generation. This reserve ensures that Californians are less reliant on a sole electricity generation method.

Recent findings from a study in Geophysical Research Letters indicate that anthropogenic climate change aggravated the drought, an extreme weather event. Precipitation rates have dropped to record lows while temperatures have been consistently high. Snow has rarely fallen in crucial areas and thus not set in place crucial areas of snow melt. However, as is often the case with climate change impacts, unprecedented or elevated threats often contribute to the need to use more energy resources. In California’s case, the lack of sufficient water to produce hydroelectric power (which produces no greenhouse gas emissions) has increased the burning of natural gas.

Electricity has gotten more expensive

The switch from hydropower to natural gas comes at a cost, because increased demand has raised the price of natural gas. Some say the increases in natural gas consumption are bad news for renewable energy, hydroelectric in particular. Many assert that California’s reputation for being a low-emitting state could be tarnished as it seemingly ‘reverts’ to natural gas. Indeed, greenhouse gas emissions rose over 10 percent from 2011 to 2012. These findings lead some to argue that the green energy sector as a whole cannot reliably survive through the stresses of drought.

Not so, say some California industry experts; many still laud the adaptability of the state’s electricity generation to a wide array of environmental circumstances. In recent years, California has been at the forefront of developing non-hydro renewable energy technologies and bringing them online. Solar and wind generation rose 60 percent and 34 percent respectively over four years, from 2007 to 2011. Renewables provide for 18.3 percent of the state’s Independent System Operator, compared to 13.6 percent from hydro plants, as a San Jose Mercury News article highlighted. California has established a response system through other low-carbon technologies, despite hydroelectric generation remaining low for the foreseeable future. By bolstering a portfolio of renewable energy technologies, the state ensures that it can optimize renewable technologies when other forms of production—in this case, hydro—falter.

What does this mean for future periods of drought or other renewables?

Outside of California, other states should act on California’s lessons before they face their own dire situations from extreme weather or intense climate change. Non-hydro renewables are expected to outpace hydroelectric production over the next 25 years. This transition will be important to states as climate change shifts precipitation averages or states reallocate water resources in response to droughts. Additionally, most states are considering how to adapt their electricity generation to extreme weather events and increased demand due climate change. Twenty-five states have formal adaptation plans in place, and some cities have put together their own policies. Infrastructure resilience is of key focus, especially for those states where generation plants are vulnerable to storm surge,

And soon, Californians will have monthly reminders of the benefits of reducing fossil fuel consumption and mitigating climate change. The state’s large utility companies will begin paying credits to customers with a portion of yields from California’s cap-and-trade program. Suggestions on how to invest in efficiency measures and technologies will accompany the biannual payouts. Energy officials throughout the state hope that the dividends will trigger greater awareness of the benefits of conserving electricity.

California is now at a unique turning point in the fight against climate change. The drought’s unprecedented intensity continues, and yet, the state’s many investments in renewable technologies and efficiencies are, quite literally, paying off.