Photo by Cameron Venti via Unsplash

The energy crisis and the climate crisis might collide this summer for Californians as water and electricity may need to be conserved to stave off the effects of droughts and heat. 

With California’s water supply diminishing, there is not enough to fuel hydropower and therefore must turn to relying on fossil fuels to generate electricity as summer heat drives up electricity use. Experts believe that cuts to hydropower will increase pressure on the state’s already-stressed powergrid. This seems to be exacerbated coupled with the idea that meteorologists are expecting longer and hotter fires this year as well. 

In 2019, a non-drought year, 17% of the state’s power came from water according to the California Energy Commission. According to the California Independent System Operator’s website, hydroelectric plants are producing only a quarter of the power they were producing previously at this time two years ago. This year’s outlook for hydropower isn’t as positive with hydropower supplies down by 40%. Earlier this month, historically-low water levels were recorded at Lake Oroville, California’s second largest reservoir. As a result, the Edward Hyatt Power Plant, first established in 1967, could face closure.

Hydroelectric plants generate electricity using water to power turbines. With water levels dipping like those at Lake Oroville and other major reservoirs, the amount of power generated has been cut in half. In 2021 so far, hydropower has accounted for only 7% of the power generated in California.

“Moving water can provide a carbon-free source of electricity and therefore if it diminishes, it could potentially reduce the amount of carbon-free electricity on the grid,” Rajit Gadh, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCLA, told Scriberr News. 

However, in California, cuts to hydropower will likely not impact its goal of moving toward carbon-free electricity. “Califonia already has adjusted its electricity mix to compensate for low availability of [hydropower]. It simply reinforces the direction toward the development of more renewable generation [and] batteries,” Stephanie Pincetl, founding director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, told Scriberr News. 

The hot temperatures and diminishing supply of water are just two of the reasons why Californians may be asked to conserve electricity with Flex Alerts towards the end of the summer months. Last week, the California Independent System Operator, the state’s grid manager, had to issue Flex Alerts over consecutive days, asking Californians to conserve electricity for the second time this year to avoid causing shortages and brownouts. The demand for power is likely to increase as heat temperatures increase throughout the summer, posing an issue for hydropower. 

“As California’s ability to store solar and wind energy with batteries or other technology continues to increase, the crucial evening hours will be less challenging during heat events that affect California and the West. But for now, concerted action by consumers to conserve when a Flex Alert is issued is our most effective way of keeping the grid working for everyone,” Vonette Fontaine, senior public information officer at California ISO, told Scriberr News.

Gas-fired plants are the easiest and most reliable way to add electricity to the grid. While the state has been progressively moving toward sustainable energy such as wind and solar, it lacks the necessary infrastructure to store such energy long enough to keep Californians’ power running throughout the heat, especially with the anticipation of longer and hotter months. 

Last month, the Biden administration announced plans to build approximately 380 wind turbines off the coast of California. It is anticipated that the development will generate 4.6 gigawatts of clean electricity to the grid, enough to power 1.6 million homes.  

Eventually, in the coming decades, California will have to deal with the use of water for cooling nuclear and natural gas power plants as climate change continues to exacerbate dry and hot conditions.

Written ByVivian Kwang

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