Excluding hydropower makes no sense

When California embarked on its quest to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as a global model to stave off climate change, its first target was the state’s electric power industry.

A series of ever-tightening decrees required utilities to shift from coal, natural gas and other carbon-based sources to a “renewable portfolio,” eventually reaching 100% non-carbon sources by mid-century.

The acceptable alternatives were specified in law, dominated by windmills, solar panels and geothermal wells. But for purely political reasons, the list omitted two power sources that are both free of greenhouse gases and renewable: large hydroelectric dams and nuclear plants.

The environmental groups that were agitating for an assault on greenhouse gases disliked nukes and hydro for other reasons and, in effect, would not accept their inclusion in a renewable portfolio. They saw nuclear power as dangerous because of the uncertain safety of handling and storing spent fuel rods and dams as injurious to wildlife habitat.

Nuclear power is now out of the picture, since one of the state’s two major nukes, San Onofre, is now shut down and the second, Diablo Canyon, is ticketed for closure.

However, California has dozens of dams, most of them along the western slope of the Sierra. They and out-of-state hydropower facilities generate about 15% of the state’s power demand, and excluding them makes absolutely no sense.

That nonsensical policy is underscored by a quirk in the state’s renewable-portfolio laws. Hydropower is legally excluded from the 2030 goal of a 60% reduction in carbon-based power, but it can be legally included in the 2045 goal of a 100% reduction.

Legislation now pending in the state Senate would restore, ever so slightly, some rationality to the renewable portfolio by allowing two irrigation districts in the San Joaquin Valley, Modesto ID and Turlock ID, to include power from their jointly owned Don Pedro Dam on the Tuolumne River.

Senate Bill 386 is being carried by Sen. Anna Caballero, a Democrat from Salinas who was elected just last year and represents the region served by the two districts.

It would save their 200,000 power customers some money by reducing otherwise mandatory power purchases from solar and wind generators. Under current law, they would be required to purchase more power than they actually need to serve their customers.

However, environmental groups are campaigning hard to persuade senators to reject the measure. This week, one environmental coalition sent a letter to senators demanding rejection of the bill.

“Rolling back our own climate progress is not the model that we should be setting for other states or the country,” said Jiggy Athilingam, a co-founder of the group, Indivisible CA: StateStrong.

Standing behind the dozens of environmental groups opposing SB 386 are solar and wind generators who, for obvious reasons, don’t want any changes in laws that require utilities to purchase their power regardless of need or cost.

The opponents fear that if Modesto and Turlock can count their hydropower, other utilities, both private and public, will attempt to follow suit with their own bills.

That would certainly be a logical possibility, and why not?

If the goal of achieving shifting California to 100% “renewable” power is legitimate, there’s no logical reason to exclude hydropower from existing dams, especially since it can be included in 2045 anyway.

Excluding power from any new dams or enhancements of existing dams should be sufficient to mollify SB 386’s opponents.

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