The Heat Is Online

Drought, Climate Change Will Intensify California Electricity and Water Problems

Hot, Dark Summer Ahead for California
Drought Worsens Power Crunch, Senators Told

The Washington Post, Feb. 1, 2001

California faces a serious risk of greater electricity crisis this summer with bigger, more frequent blackouts because of a severe drought in the Pacific Northwest that is draining hydroelectric power resources, energy analysts and company officials told a Senate committee yesterday.

The power shortage will mean continued high electricity prices in states bordering California.

"You have to scramble right now because we have a looming crisis again this summer," consultant Larry Makovich of Cambridge Energy Research Associates told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee,

Senators and witnesses at yesterday's hearing debated the possibility of federally imposed price caps or rate controls that Northwest governors have requested to rein in extraordinarily high wholesale electricity prices.

The proposals are expected to be a main focus of a meeting between western governors and Bush administration officials Friday. But so far there is no indication that Congress would move rapidly on that front and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has resisted imposing wholesale price caps in California.

In the "worst case," if the region's drought continues and summer electricity demand is very high because of hot weather, California could face more than 1,000 hours of blackouts this year, said Joe Bob Perkins, president of wholesale operations for Reliant Energy, a Houston-based company that owns major power plants in California.

"Essentially, California will have to be incredibly fortunate" to avoid blackouts this summer, he said. Members of the Senate committee agreed.

"We're going to be in a crisis situation this summer as well," said Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), the committee chairman.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she believes that California will be short between 2,000 and 5,000 megawatts of power a day when heavy air conditioning use goes up in hot weather. A megawatt of power provides electricity to 1,000 homes.

In the summer, California's electricity demand rises to a peak of 50,000 megawatts a day, exceeding the state's maximum generating capacity of around 45,000, according to state officials.

Imports make up the rest. Electricity from the Pacific Northwest -- most of it hydroelectric power -- contributes as much as 11 percent of California's power needs in a normal year.

Recent blackouts in the state were caused by shortages of 500 megawatts, affecting 500,000 California households. If the worst-case scenarios come true, and shortages reach 5,000 megawatts, blackouts could last six hours at a time, affecting more than 20 million people, Perkins said.

A drought in the Pacific Northwest is compounding California's electricity shortages and the failure of its four-year-old deregulation program.

The Columbia River and Snake River regions are facing the fourth driest year on record, said Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.).

The reservoir behind the Grand Coulee Dam, largest in the Northwest, is at its lowest level in 25 years, and water power from Columbia River dams that normally would be used this summer is being tapped now to help California through its current shortage, Smith noted.

The Northwest Power Planning Council recently warned that the Northwest faces a 1-in-4 chance of power shortages.

"There is a very high probability that the West Coast will face blackouts," said Judi Johansen, executive vice president of PacifiCorp, an electricity utility serving six western states.

Panelists at yesterday's Senate hearing agreed that California has few immediate options available to deal with continuing shortages this year. Although six power plants are under construction, most will not come on line until 2002.

The state should consider paying big industrial users to close their plants and use electricity they have contracted to receive, panelists said. Conservation by companies and residents could save an additional 600 megawatts a day, by one estimate. But the current prices paid by Californians, capped at roughly 1996 levels, don't give people an incentive to reduce electricity use, panelists said.

Price caps won't prompt increased production from generators that are paying record prices for the natural gas used to make electricity, generating companies executives said. "You can start turning the power off, or pay the price it takes to get power to come," said Steven J. Kean, Enron Corp.'s chief of staff.

In Sacramento yesterday, Gov. Gray Davis (D) said officials are close to completing the first piece of legislation to allow the state government to enter into long-term contracts with power suppliers. The state government has been buying power on an emergency basis, but the pending legislation would make the state a major electricity buyer for years to come. That would, in effect, end California's failed experiment with deregulation.

The legislative action in Sacramento followed the release of a second state-ordered audit of one of California's struggling utility companies. The review of Pacific Gas & Electric's books showed that the company ignored warnings that its costs for wholesale electricity would soar under deregulation and that it failed to put cash aside to keep the company solvent.

"PG&E did not anticipate it would be constrained in its borrowings and did not develop a cash conservation program until December 2000," the audit report said.

The audit also confirmed that Pacific Gas & Electric is deeply in debt and nearly broke, just as an audit the day before concluded about Southern California Edison.

Like Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric had transferred about $4.7 billion to its holding company, PG&E Corp., since 1997. The money was, in part, from the sale of its power generating facilities and some of it was used to pay debt.

Such a transfer is not illegal or improper, but it has outraged consumer advocates and some elected officials in California.Booth reported from Los Angeles.

Drought threatens Washington state hydropower, salmon

Reuters News Service, Feb. 22, 2001

SEATTLE - The Western US power shortage could worsen if shrinking Washington state water supplies force tough choices between feeding hydropower plants and saving endangered salmon, the governor's office said on Tuesday.

Persistently sunny skies have shrunken rivers, reservoirs and snowpacks to dangerously low levels, causing state officials to begin preparing for a drought declaration, perhaps as soon as mid-March.

"These days are really great out there. It's spring, it's California-like weather. It's wonderful. But there may be a price to pay in the summertime," said Bob Nichols, natural resources adviser to Gov. Gary Locke, in a telephone interview.

The stakes are high in a region heavily dependent on its legendary wet climate to provide clean electricity and support everything from fruit farms to metal smelters and ski resorts alongside the regional mascot - the tasty, embattled salmon.

"The big crunch is going to come between water for hydropower generation and the fish," Nichols said. "They have a very powerful Endangered Species Act (protection). This may come head-on. We need some of that water to generate electricity."

The timing of the water shortage is terrible. A botched power deregulation scheme in California, where a cool winter has followed withering summer heat, has helped drain regional power supplies and boost prices by as much as 80 percent.

Locke and Nichols on Tuesday met with officials from around the state and the federal government's regional hydropower authority, Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), to assess the crisis and prepare to ration water if rains don't come soon.

After two straight years of dry monsoon seasons, area snowpack is down almost 50 percent from normal and reservoirs are down 70 percent from typical winter levels.

In the Columbia River Basin, where dams supply almost 80 percent of Washington's power and huge chunks throughout the West, water supply stands at 59 percent of normal. Replenishing supply would require rain and snow to fall at 1.5 times the normal rates through July.

"That would be an incredible amount," Nichols said.

Under state law, a drought can be declared when water supply is below 75 percent of normal and the shortage is likely to create "undue hardships" for water users.

State officials could begin by reallocating water within the farm sector, which uses a whopping 75 percent of Washington's water.

The state may encourage farmers of low-value crops like hay to sell or lease their water rights to support perennial crops like apples, which take years to establish and yield crops for many more.

Emergency orders could be accompanied by state or federal aid, according to a report from the governor's office.

The state has already begun encouraging voluntary power and water conservation measures and many area businesses and government agencies have reduced consumption.


Global Warming Portends Water, Power Shortages in American West

BERKELEY, California, February 2, 2001 (ENS) - California's current energy and water shortages may be a sign of things to come. Within the next 50 years, California and other western states will face serious water problems because of an increase in atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, say scientists with the U.S. Department of Energy's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

As atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, continue to rise, global average temperatures are expected to rise as well.

Warmer overall temperatures may spell more rain and less snow in the winter. This in turn will mean more flooding in the spring and a reduced water supply for summers that will grow increasingly dry, the researchers said.

Similar problems already face California, where dwindling power supplies have led to rolling blackouts. Energy experts and California water officials are now warning that the state may face up to 1,000 hours of power blackouts this summer, when drought conditions couple with high energy demand to cause severe power shortages.

Two papers presented at the 81st meeting of the American Meteorological Society, held last month in Albuquerque, New Mexico, discussed the importance of accurately assessing and projecting regional climate changes that can result from global warming. One focused on the problems facing the western United States at the regional level, and the other looked at the potential impact of rising temperatures on a representative set of California river systems.

The scientists presenting the two papers both work out of the hydroclimate and impacts research group with Berkeley Lab's Earth Sciences Division. The research group is funded in part by the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA).

"Regional climate significantly affects water resources, frequency of natural disasters such as flood and drought, and the health of ecosystems," said Jinwon Kim, lead author of the paper on regional impacts. "For example, increasing populations and industrial activities in the western U.S. expand urban areas into steep slopes and flood planes. As a result, increasing populations are being exposed to natural hazards."

Norman Miller, leader of the hydroclimate and impacts research group and a member of the California Energy Commission's California Climate Change Panel, was the principal author of the paper on California river systems. Though the projections of both studies showed the same results, Miller warns that climate projections are not guarantees.

"Caution should be exercised in reporting any climate projection as the degree of uncertainty remains significant," Miller said.

But Miller and Kima agree that accurate assessments and projections of the potential impacts of climate change on regional and state levels are crucial for managing water resources, reducing the damage caused by natural hazards and planning for sustainable development.

"These concerns will become even more prominent in California and elsewhere throughout the western United States as population and industrial growth continues to strain the current water resources supply," said Miller.

To obtain climate predictions for the western U.S., Kim and his coauthors used a downscaled version of the global climate change scenarios predicted by the United Kingdom's Hadley Centre Global Climate Model. They did this by coupling the Hadley Model to a pair of regional climate models called the Mesoscale Atmospheric Simulation and Soil-Plant-Snow (SPS), which Kim and others developed.

Projections were based on the doubled carbon dioxide condition that is widely used as a standard by climate forecasters. The researchers assumed that CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere will continue to rise by a rate of one percent a year and focused their projections on the climate changes that should take place between the years 2040 and 2049.

"Preliminary analyses of the results suggest that total precipitation in the western U.S. may increase significantly, especially in the high elevation areas where heavy precipitation occurs," Kim said.

The most significant precipitation increases were projected for the Sierra Nevada mountains and the northern California Coastal Range. However, Kim said, "Most of this precipitation increase will be due to increased rainfall. Significant increases of snowfall may occur only in very high elevation areas."

The western U.S. is characterized by mountainous terrain, interior deserts and coastal areas which see extreme contrasts in seasonal precipitation - very little rainfall in the spring and summer months. The region depends heavily on high elevation snow packs to feed its rivers and other fresh water resources.

The paper presented by Miller also used the downscaled Hadley model by coupling it to regional cllimate models. In addition to the Mesoscale Atmospheric Simulation model, Miller and his coauthors also worked with models from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the Danish Meteorological Office.

These models all projected significant increases in precipitation and temperatures for the Sierra Nevada.

"These increases may require California water resources managers to release reservoir storage water to reduce the risks of flooding during the wet season," Miller said. "This would decrease the supply available for the dry season."

This winter, California has tapped its hydropower reserves to meet existing needs, leaving little in reserve for the dryer summer months.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California.