As Lake Levels Fall, Power Bills May Climb

The lack of rain to fill California’s reservoirs means less hydro power. Customers will likely be paying more for electricity as utilities turn to more expensive power-generation sources. In other parts of the West, power bills have already climbed.

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You’ve seen the unsettling headlines about California’s epic drought: 17 communities could run out of water within two months.  Nearly 500 wildfires already in 2014 compared to two in the same period last year. Sierra Nevada snowpack at 12 percent of normal in late January — the lowest ever recorded. Gov. Jerry Brown asks Californians to cut water consumption by 20 percent.

Here’s another one you might not have seen: the drought will likely raise Californian’s electricity rates.

Here’s how it works:

When reservoirs are low, dam operators will often keep water behind the dam instead of sending it more of it downstream through the turbines. That’s what’s happening in the Central Valley, where officials at the State Water Project announced they won’t release any water from the system’s 34 reservoirs and five hydroelectric dams.

But drought can cut electricity generation at dams even if they still release water. The lower the reservoir, the less pressure on the water as it passes through the turbines. As water levels drop, the same volume of water will produce less electricity. That’s already happening at one of the West’s largest reservoirs: Lake Powell and Glen Canyon Dam, on the Colorado River on the Utah-Arizona border.

Even if big, government-owned dams produce less power, most utilities are still on the hook for providing the same amount of electricity to their customers. So they go looking elsewhere for replacement.

In California, utilities often look to other power generators in the Pacific Northwest. The region is a hydropower behemoth, with 35 percent of the country’s hydropower capacity. But this year snowpack is low there, too—much of the region has gotten only half of the snow and rain it normally receives. That means Northwestern dams may also be producing less electricity.

The chart shows California’s power-generation sources. Hydropower is in blue. Traditionally, hydropower provides about 14% of the state’s electricity.

To make up the gap, California utilities are likely going to turn to natural gas, says Randy Wilkerson, a spokesman for the Western Area Power Administration, the governmental body that operates the electrical generation component of many dams. That’s usually more expensive than hydro power because hydro has no fuel cost.

Of course, drought is not unique to California – it’s often a fact of life for those of us living in the West. Too many sunny days and cloudless skies have caused power prices to peak elsewhere, notably in the Missouri River basin. Customers living in Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska and Wyoming now see a “drought adder” on their electricity bill, which explains what percentage of their rate increase is due to drought. According to Wilkerson, the drought has doubled electricity rates in the region.

For most of us living in the West, the most obvious effects of reduced water releases and lower reservoir levels will not likely be on our electricity bills. Instead, we think of how local governments and irrigators scramble to find water, the fallowing of huge amounts of farmland, the excessive pumping of groundwater and the shorter showers we take. But as indicated by how the price of electricity climbs in California and elsewhere in the West during drought, water and power are more connected than it seems.

 

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