Editorials

It is unfair to Valley for state not to count hydroelectric power as renewable energy

About 6,000 cubic feet per second is released from Lake McClure through the New Exchequer Dam hydroelectric facility on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017.
About 6,000 cubic feet per second is released from Lake McClure through the New Exchequer Dam hydroelectric facility on Monday, Feb. 13, 2017. Sun-Star file

Looking for fairness? Better consult a map if you’re in California.

For many living along the coast, it’s considered “fair” to make electricity more expensive in the name of fighting climate change. For people who rarely need an air conditioner, the added expense is a small sacrifice. For those living inland, where temperatures top 100 degrees eight, nine or even 30 days a year, that sacrifice is far greater.

In several Bay Area communities, where median incomes are double to nearly triple those found in adjacent Valley counties, fat incentives to purchase a $75,000 electric car seem justifiable. But in the northern San Joaquin Valley, where 85,000 people commute to the Bay Area every day, such incentives would have to quadruple to make electric cars affordable.

AG Headshot.jpg
Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced Contributed

If your political dreams are tied to giant solar farms, you’ll need a place to sell that new electricity. No problem, just require people to use only energy you’ve anointed as “renewable.” That some of California’s most vulnerable populations live and work in the much-hotter Central Valley and will have to pay far more for that power is, well, their problem.

Such moral accommodations are not right, justifiable or equitable.

Senate Bill 100, enacted in 2018, requires that California’s public utilities switch entirely to renewable energy by 2045. Until 2030, hydropower generated at dozens of existing large-scale facilities won’t count as renewable. Why would anyone remove safe, reliable and carbon-free power from the environmental scorecard?

It’s simple economics. Large-scale hydro produces about 12 percent of California’s energy each year. Because it is generated at existing dams, the cost to create hydropower is low. The only way to make solar and wind power more attractive than hydro is to arbitrarily put large-scale hydro off limits as “non-renewable.” That forces utility providers who own dams to replace their suddenly “non-renewable” hydro with mostly higher-priced solar and wind.

That extra cost will be passed along to customers.

The heaviest burden falls on places like Modesto, Merced and Turlock, where the weather is hotter and where irrigation districts have invested millions to create clean hydropower. The districts will have to buy solar or wind power to replace their “non-renewable” hydro. Worse, when they sell their suddenly excess hydropower, it will be worth less because it’s not “renewable.”

Over the next decade, those increased costs will amount to tens of millions of dollars to Valley ratepayers.

The same dynamic will hit the entire state. San Francisco, Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles all produce hydropower that won’t count, and all of it will have to be replaced. The state itself produces 2.3 million megawatts that can’t be counted. Pacific Gas & Electric has 26 hydro facilities that don’t qualify.

Some insist this is a necessary sacrifice to save the planet. That’s not true.

If every electron consumed in California was generated at a hydropower plant, we’d have the cleanest, least-polluting, most reliable power supply in the world. A study from the University of Stuttgart, Germany, showed hydropower is the cleanest power available; solar ranks fourth.

Refusing to recognize hydro as renewable won’t do a darned thing to save the planet. It won’t cut carbon emissions, make California’s air cleaner or our electrical grid more reliable. But it will push up prices.

The environmental movement, which pushed for SB 100, simply ignores its own hypocrisy. The Sierra Club applauded wildly when the state of Washington passed a clean-energy bill similar — but not identical — to California’s this year. In Washington, the state’s vast hydropower supplies are counted as clean and renewable.

I have asked the Assembly to put the question of hydropower’s status as renewable energy on the ballot and let voters decide how to count it. Knowing that’s a long shot, we’re also taking steps to go directly to voters.

The horrifying effects of climate change are clear. No one wants to turn back the clock and see power plants spewing fossil-fuel emissions. We’ll be delighted when California is using 100 percent renewable energy — including hydro.

Until that time comes, we shouldn’t be asked to waste our hydropower or pay higher prices for electricity that is no cleaner than what we’re already producing at dams up and down the state.

It’s not just about fighting climate change. It’s also about fighting for fairness. The poorest people in California shouldn’t have to pay more so that others can profit.

Adam Gray represents 21st Assembly District, including Merced and part of Stanislaus counties. Email Assemblymember.Gray@assembly.ca.gov; phone 916 319-2021.
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