Recent ice storms could overwhelm California hydroelectric production this summer

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Recent ice storms could overwhelm California hydroelectric production this summer

The rain caused swollen rivers and flooding in parts of San Diego and across much of Southern California, as well as several snowstorms in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the northern part of the state.

That could lead to a second consecutive year of strong output from the state’s hydropower plants, which will help shore up the electric grid this summer. But officials at the California Independent System Operator, which manages the power system across about 80 percent of the state, aren’t celebrating just yet.

“It’s always encouraging to have a wet winter and good snowfall,” said California ISO spokeswoman Anne Gonzales, “but it is too early to tell the full impact of recent rain and snowfall on power supplies during the summer and fall.”

After a very slow start, rain and snow totals are increasing series of atmospheric rivers – Columns of condensed water vapor that produce significant amounts of precipitation.

The UC Berkeley Central Sierra Snow Lab, located at about 7,000 feet on Donner Pass in the Sierra, recorded more than 5 feet of snow last week due to a series of storms.

What is called “snow water equivalent” is an important metric that refers to the total amount of water present in the snowpack and then released when it evaporates. Five weeks ago, the statewide snow water equivalent was only 28 percent; By Thursday morning it had increased to 75 percent.

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“We’re a little behind, but overall the winter has been pretty normal,” said Andrew Schwartz, the Snow Lab’s lead scientist. “At the lab, we’ve had just over 5 feet of snow in the last eight days, so that’s definitely helpful.”

Healthy amounts of snow and rain fill reservoirs that feed water to the state’s large hydroelectric plants. The power generated from those facilities adds much-needed megawatts of power to the state grid.

In rainy years, hydropower can account for about 20 percent of California’s energy mix. But in dry years it may drop to about 6 percent. This means grid operators have to rely more heavily on other energy sources such as natural gas or out-of-state imports, especially during the hottest summer months when electricity demand increases.

After several years of drought, last year was a big, wet blockbuster. The Snow Lab measured 754 inches of snowfall in the winter of 2022–23, making it the snowiest winter since 1951–52.

California ISO officials said hydroelectric production in July 2023 was up 56 percent from July 2022.

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But energy analysts say a healthy snow pack in 2024 won’t have the same impact as last year. That’s because water levels at large hydroelectric facilities in the northern part of the state remain near capacity after last year’s rainfall.

“Storage facilities are much healthier this spring than last spring,” said Jeff Richter, principal owner of Energy GPS, an Oregon-based energy analytics company. “So we’re not able to fill the tank as much.”

Shasta Lake near Redding supplies water to the Shasta Powerplant, which produces hydroelectricity for the 15-state western power grid. As of late Wednesday, Lake Shasta was at 125 percent of average and 83 percent of capacity, according to the Department of Water Resources.

Reservoir levels at Oroville Dam in the Sierra Nevada foothills, which serves the Edward Hyatt Power Plant, were 130 percent of average and at 77 percent capacity.

Richter said there’s no doubt that “back-to-back good water years is a good thing,” but extreme heat in California and much of the West could still spell trouble for the electric grid.

“The caution is that if we get hotter in the coastal part of the state, our load — our electricity demand — will strain the system, no matter how much hydropower we have,” Richter said.

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That’s one reason California ISO is taking a wait-and-see approach.

The grid operator won’t release its annual summer assessment until May, after an analysis of data compiled by the California Department of Water Resources. Only then will California ISO officials determine expected water conditions.

Looking to the future, nature plays a big role.

If temperatures rise rapidly and snow melts too fast in the Sierra, state water officials may be forced to divert water for flood control instead of using it for power.

The Water Resources Department also discharges water for other reasons such as agriculture and fish habitat. Depending on conditions, California ISO managers say hydroelectric production changes frequently – sometimes, even from one hour to the next.

For now, the recent snow storms are certainly good for ski resort business.

Palisades Tahoe What was formerly known as Squaw Valley had received 53 inches of snowfall since the beginning of February as of Wednesday morning.

“The entire snowfall has transformed the mountain from top to bottom,” the resort said on its X, or Twitter, feed.

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