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State's use of hydropower declining COPLEY NEWS SERVICE September 22, 2000
SACRAMENTO -- A vital source of electricity is shrinking as California's hunger for more energy continues to grow.
Water spilling from dams generates nearly a quarter of the electricity the state uses to cool homes, light skyscrapers and surf the Internet. As such, hydropower is the second largest source of electricity in California, behind natural gas and just ahead of coal.
But the production of hydropower is in decline, mostly because federal regulators are setting aside more water for environmental protection as dam licenses are renewed. Power generation has been dropping an average 10 percent at relicensed dams, utility officials say.
Energy managers are growing increasingly edgy over what could happen when an eight-year streak of fairly wet winters ends. Over the most recent drought, which lingered from 1987 to 1992, federal hydropower generation in Northern California was cut in half. Utility giant Pacific Gas and Electric Co. suffered similar losses throughout its extensive hydropower network.
A drought "would drive us to more rotating brownouts," warned Kellan Fluckiger, chief operations officer for the California Independent System Operator, which oversees the state's power supplies.
Grid managers like Fluckiger count on hydropower to cover emergencies. Power from dams can be switched on in seconds, giving the state more flexibility in transmitting electricity to areas that may be on the verge of a blackout.
"We fill big holes in a hurry," said Donn Wilson, administrator of the Yuba County Water Agency, which operates a huge dam north of Sacramento.
Out-of-state producers may not be able or willing to regularly rescue California. In the Pacific Northwest, booming populations and surging economies are draining bountiful surplus power that once was gladly sold to California.
In Washington state, the Bonneville Power Administration came under fire for putting salmon at risk along the Columbia River after it increased production for California this summer. In Idaho, there is mounting pressure to reduce hydropower production to protect the Snake River.
"We've hit the wall," said Jim Crettol, a Bakersfield-area farmer active in statewide power issues. "This is not a short-term deal. The shortage of electricity is going to carry on for three to five more years."
Barring a surprise heat wave, California may have escaped the worst of the summer. Now comes a scramble to shield the state from paying a huge toll in additional costs, chaos and controversy in 2001.
"We already know next year will be more severe. If we add in a dry year it will be even worse," said Jim McKinney, manager of a state-federal task force studying hydropower issues.
California's multibillion-dollar investments in dozens of dams that punctuate pristine rivers helped fuel remarkable economic growth and allowed residents to live comfortably in deserts in July and the mountains in January. When the state deregulated the electricity market four years ago, lawmakers and the industry promised plentiful power at cheap rates.
But deregulation backfired, plunging the state into a painful re-examination of the scheme. A plug-in-now-pay-later plan was rushed through the Legislature. But that debt must be repaid -- perhaps when more facilities come on line to drive down prices.
Beyond modernization, however, no new hydro facilities are contemplated.
"I don't see us building more dams. It would be nice, but I don't think there's anyone who believes it will happen," said Jerry Jordan, executive director of the California Municipal Utilities Association.
The era of widespread, multi-purpose dam construction effectively ended with the rise of the environmental movement and the jarring reality that these facilities can kill millions of fish a year.
Environmentalists regularly challenge renewals when dams come up for relicensing, many for the first time in 50 years. In response, regulators frequently agree to give up more water for fish.
Some environmentalists fear politically influential utilities will use the state's power crunch to avoid stringent flow requirements. About half of the hydropower plants in California must be relicensed by 2015.
"I expect utilities to cynically manipulate opinion because of a perceived crisis," said Steve Evans of the environmental lobby, Friends of the River.
Dams block migration routes to spawning grounds and hold back flows of cool water. Juvenile fish survival rates can plummet as water temperatures rise.
But some wonder why people and crops should wilt.
"To what extent are we going to value fish over our energy needs?" asked David Tuft, spokesman for the National Hydropower Association.
State legislation calling for a study of whether some dams should be demolished failed this year after it came under attack from utilities and water interests.
As the value of water for power generation climbs, utilities also are expected to emerge as a new combatant in the state's water wars. Clashes will escalate, some predict, particularly during dry years.
"It will be a monumental battle," predicted Lon House, energy consultant for the Association of California Water Agencies.
Environmentalists are not the only ones worried about the power industry's ability to influence water policy. Some water managers fear supplies may be constrained by inflexible commitments for electrical production.
"Water becomes more valuable as a commodity, which could leave it subject to profit-maximizing behaviors," cautioned McKinney of the hydropower task force.
Increasing hydropower is not as simple as running more water through turbines. Most of the state's existing water supplies already are dedicated to cities, agricultural interests and the environment. Moreover, almost all available hydropower is spoken for. Even power out of the mighty Hoover Dam is a near sell-out.
Efforts are under way to curb hydropower losses. The National Hydropower Association has launched a campaign to make it easier to install new generators at existing dams.
The federal government is spending $20 million over the next decade to increase electrical output at Shasta Dam.
A coalition of environmental groups also is working with dam operators to preserve power while taking steps to protect fish.
But it may be too little, too late to provide much relief for Californians.
"Don't count on increased hydropower production to solve your problems," warned Curt Aikens, a power official from Yuba County, which has a large hydropower operation. "If anything, you're going to see less of a contribution."
-- Martin Thompson (firstname.lastname@example.org), September 23, 2000