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Photo of a visitor near the receding waters at Folsom Lake.

Folsom Lake, a hydroelectric reservoir in California's Central Valley, was so dry in January a visitor could walk in its bed. Recent rains have helped, but Folsom was still at 39 percent capacity in March.

Photograph by Robert Galbraith, Reuters

Josie Garthwaite

for National Geographic

Published March 11, 2014

California's record drought has parched crops, but hasn't yet dimmed lights or choked the flow of electricity, even though the Golden State, with more than 300 dams, has long been a hydroelectricity leader among U.S. states.

California's hydro plants generated less power in 2013 than they had in 21 years, but the state's water crisis hasn't turned into an energy crisis, thanks to a mix of renewable energy, natural gas, and planning. (Take related Quiz: What You Don't Know About Energy and Water.)

"From an electricity generation and reliability standpoint, the drought isn't going to have a major impact," said Edward Randolph, director of the energy division of the California Public Utilities Commission. "There [are] ample resources to meet demand."

U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell was set to tour a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation pumping station in Byron on Tuesday, to highlight the federal response to the drought. But when it comes to energy, it's been state policy that has helped bolster California's resilience. California has invested both in new energy sources and in steps to make its system more reliable in response to the energy crisis of 2001 and major heat storms in 2006. Regulations now require utilities to procure, ahead of time,  reserve electricity at least 15 percent in excess of their forecasted demand, Randolph said, to ensure they can meet demand even in worst-case scenarios. "California has wild swings in weather from year to year," he said. "There's plenty of resources out there to meet shortfalls caused by extreme weather." (See related, "California Keeps Its Energy Cool in Summer Scorcher.")

"A Deep Hole"

The drought that California is now enduring certainly qualifies as extreme.

Although rain and snow have poured across the state in recent weeks, the storms are not enough to end a three-year drought or to make up for one of the driest years on record. In one striking illustration of the drought's effects, water in Northern California's Folsom Lake reached just 17 percent of the reservoir's capacity and 35 percent of its historic average.

"We're in a deep hole," said Heather Cooley, co-director of the water program at the Pacific Institute, an environmental research group based in Oakland, California. "A couple of storms—even though these have been pretty wet storms—doesn't catch us up to where we need to be."

That reality is reflected in a dramatic decline in production by California's hydroelectric complex. The state has capacity to produce more electricity from hydro than any other U.S. state except Washington and Oregon. But last year, California hydro generation totaled only 23.9 million megawatt-hours, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration's most recent and detailed state data. California's historic energy data shows that's the lowest level since the drought years of 1991 and 1992. Over the past 30 years, hydro has made up an average of 14 percent of California's electricity mix; in 2013, it contributed just 9 percent.

But the state now has more options to take the place of hydro than it did in previous droughts. Importantly, a wave of wind and solar projects has swept the state. In 2013 alone, California's renewable generating capacity increased by more than 20 percent with the addition of 3.3 gigawatts. "If we look back, I think California is in a slightly better place in that a larger fraction of our energy is from renewables, especially renewables that don't require water—solar photovoltaics and wind," Cooley said.  (See related quiz: "What You Don't Know About Electricity.")

Aerial photo of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System
Photograph by Ethan Miller, Getty Images
The heliostats at the new Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in the Mojave Desert, largest solar thermal plant in the world, are emblematic of California’s changing energy landscape.

Wind energy, which provided less than 2 percent of California's electricity consumption on average over the previous decade, ramped up in 2013 to provide 5.2 percent of the state's power. (See related story: "Too Much Wind? Save It in Underground Volcanic Rock Reservoirs.") And solar has surged from contributing an average of 0.3 percent of California electricity use over the past decade to 1.5 percent in 2013.  (See related, "As Solar Power Grows, Disputes Flare Over Utility Bills.") Even geothermal energy showed an upswing, thanks to increased capacity; the state's geysers have long helped make California a geothermal leader, but production had been stagnant or falling until recently.

Switching on the Gas

Still, some experts warn that it would be wrong to conclude that renewable energy has been California's only savior, or even its most important one.

The state's new renewable resources "will definitely provide benefit at the times of day when they're there," Randolph said. But because utilities won't be able to turn sunshine and wind off and on when needed, he said, they'll turn to natural gas. Indeed, natural gas provided about 46 percent of electricity consumed in California in 2013, according to EIA's figures, up from an average of 37 percent over the past 10 years. (See related, "New 'Flexible' Power Plants Sway to Keep Up With Renewables.")

For example, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, or SMUD, which typically sources 28 percent of its electricity from hydro, now expects it to meet only about 16 percent of its electricity needs this year, according to Scott Martin, manager of the utility's resource planning and pricing. The watershed that supplies SMUD's upper American River hydroelectric projects has received only about 60 percent of the precipitation it expects to see in a normal year. To fill the gap, SMUD plans to run its natural gas plants more and purchase more electricity. "It's possible we may receive more renewables as well," said Martin. "But that would be a small impact on the replacement energy." (See "Pictures: Oil Potential and Animal Habitat in the Monterey Shale.")

The reason for natural gas's importance is economic. "When you line up the units every day to figure out what you're going to run, it's typically done by the price," said Tyson Brown, an analyst for EIA. Hydro power is generally a low-cost option. But when hydro production drops, electricity from natural gas—the next cheapest alternative—dials up.

Swapping in natural gas for hydro means higher emissions and higher procurement costs for utilities, which would be reflected in electricity bills next year. During the drought of 2007-09, California utilities burned more natural gas to make up for hydropower shortages—a switch that the Pacific Institute says resulted in 13 million extra tons of CO2 emissions and some $1.7 billion in additional costs on energy bills.

Yet Martin says SMUD does not anticipate a significant financial impact as a result of the drought. The district has weather insurance that pays out when there is low precipitation, he said. It makes deposits to a "savings account" when there is excess hydro, and withdraws from it when there is less hydro than normal. "We are optimistic that between the savings account balance and our insurance, SMUD will be able to cover any additional costs without changing customer rates," Martin said. "However, that depends on the amount of water we get for the rest of the winter and spring and the market price for power."

The forecast, so far, looks grim. According to analysis from the National Weather Service, the state as of March 2 had a one-in-200 chance of hitting average rainfall levels for the 2013-14 year. A map reflecting data from the U.S. Drought Monitor shows red, orange, and yellow smearing across much of the American West—with the driest, angriest, dark-red bullseye centered on the Golden State, 90 percent of which is now suffering severe or extreme drought. More than 22 percent of the state is experiencing what monitors consider exceptional drought.

Photo of two men installing solar panels on home.
Photograph by Joseph Sohm, Corbis
Workers install solar panels on a home in Oak View, California. Rooftop power has helped the state weather the drought.

In a way, the seasonal rhythm of electricity demand, weather patterns, and water flows have so far worked to California's benefit in avoiding an energy crunch despite diminished hydro resources. According to Brown, when it comes to reliability—keeping the lights on—"the big concern grid operators" is less about meeting average demand than having an adequate buffer available for the peaks. "Luckily, the peak demand in California is in the late summer—August or September," when air-conditioning tends to drive up electricity use. Even during wet years, energy planners don't count on hydro (which declines after spring and early summer) to meet those peaks.

Adapting to Climate Change

California has other advantages in managing its drop in hydropower. For example, it can call on its neighbors for help. "California is in a bit of a unique position because it imports so much of its load from the Southwest as well as the Pacific Northwest," said Brown. When in-state supplies take a dive, the state has the infrastructure to import more electricity.

In addition, improvements to California's power grid made since the droughts of 1987-92 and 2007-09 also put the state in a better position to deal with water shortages, Brown said. Grid operators are now running models hourly—rather than daily, as they did in the past—to plan how to dispatch their resources.

Also, even though California is a big hydropower state, with 14 percent of U.S. hydro capacity within its borders, its energy system is among the least thirsty. That's partly because it relies so little on coal power plants (less than one percent of its electricity). And the state's two nuclear plants (one of which is being decommissioned) rely on nearby seawater for cooling. Most water consumed for electricity goes toward cooling large coal and nuclear thermal power plants; in all, these thermoelectric plants account for nearly half of all water withdrawals in the United States. (See related, "Water Demand for Energy to Double by 2035.")

"In that sense, California is less vulnerable than other parts of the country," Cooley said. Brown concurred: "You're not going to have the reliability issues that you would for a coal plant in Texas in an extended drought."

Watch a video showing California's sparse snow pack this year:

Yet more work remains to bolster California's electricity supply in the face of global climate change and ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.   (See related story: "Climate Change Impact on Energy: Five Proposed Safeguards.")

Drought has shaken energy systems around the world in recent years, from Brazil, to France, to China. In Panama, where hydroelectricity contributes more than half of all electricity generation, the government ordered power rationing last year after declaring a drought emergency spanning one-third of the country.  (See related story: "California Tackles Climate Change, But Will Others Follow?")

"We know that water availability is impacting energy generation," Cooley said. "Right now, it's only during droughts, but as these become more frequent and more intense, as population grows, these events will occur during even average years."

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

7 comments
Peace Jaway
Peace Jaway

This is exactly the right track: Outfit every building with the equipment to utilize whatever renewables are available on that property, keep petrochemical fuel and it's production in place for use where they're either needed and/or the best option, make the localized power-production equipment such that when it's overproducing, rather than building bigger and bigger batteries and just draining the natural system of as much of its energy as we possibly can, we leave in that system what we don't need knowing more will be there when we need it., since taking energy out of the system without moderation will have as many ill effects at some point as our current path of spewing gases and fumes and garbage into the system. If one building's equipment malfunctions, the effect on the grid will be next to nothing while it's repaired - even on that building, as it will be sustained by excess power from the rest of the grid - and the power companies can shift from an emphasis on production to mainly equipment maintenance with production as a sideline for those applications requiring that kind of scale and in case of a (much less likely in that scenario) catastrophic widespread failure of all the building-specific renewable equipment in a given area. This would also reduce the need for major hydroelectric operations that cause a pretty significant environmental impact themselves.

Susan Gawarecki
Susan Gawarecki

Renewables can't begin to meet California's (or the nation's) demands for reliable electricity.  Coal has proved to be environmentally damaging and the worst source of greenhouse gases and emissions dangerous to health (including significant amounts of radiation from uranium and thorium in the coal).  Natural gas is a better alternative from the perspective of carbon emissions, but its recovery via the hydrofracturing process is controversial.  In truth, only nuclear power can meet the demand for reliable baseload energy with the smallest carbon footprint.  As a bonus, we can destroy Cold War nuclear weapons by using them as fuel.  Per unit of energy, the area taken up by (and consequent environmental impact of) a nuclear plant is extremely small compared to renewable alternatives and its waste is extremely low volume compared to coal.  Modern nuclear plants are safe and have zero emissions.  Waste disposal remains a political issue; geoscientists long ago identified good options for permanent disposal.  The truth is that energy generation of any type will have social, health and environmental impacts, and once the actual costs and benefits are weighed, nuclear remains the best option for baseload generation.

Daniel Ferra
Daniel Ferra

Alliance for Solar Choice is a group of Solar Leasing Companies that with Net-Metering enable One Utility to Replace Another SLC, Why should a Hard Working, Tax Paying, Voting, Home Owning Citizen not be able to participate in the State mandated 33% Renewable Energy by 2020 ? We need a Ca. Residential Feed in Tariff and a National One.


Globally we are emitting 40-44 Billion tons of Green House Gases annually, here in California we emit 446 million tons of Carbon Dioxide a year, 1,222,000 Toxic Tons a Day.

The California Public Utility Commission is thinking of replacing San Onofre and Hydro losses to generating with Natural Gas Power Plants, unless We start Changing and Fighting for real Sustainable Energy Policies.

The state currently produces about 71% of the electricity it consumes, while it imports 8% from the Pacific Northwest and 21% from the Southwest.

This is how we generate our electricity in 2011, natural gas was burned to make 45.3% of electrical power generated in-state. Nuclear power from Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County accounted for 9.15%, large hydropower 18.3%, Renewable 16.6% and coal 1.6%. 

There is 9% missing from San Onofre and with the current South Western drought, how long before the 18.3% hydro will be effected?

We have to change how we generate our electricity, with are current drought conditions and using our clean water for Fracking, there has to be a better way to generate electricity, and there is, a proven stimulating policy. 

The Feed in Tariff is a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in Renewable Energy, the California FiT allows eligible customers generators to enter into 10- 15- 20- year contracts with their utility company to sell the electricity produced by renewable energy, and guarantees that anyone who generates electricity from R E source, whether Homeowner, small business, or large utility, is able to sell that electricity. It is mandated by the State to produce 33% R E by 2020.

FIT policies can be implemented to support all renewable technologies including:
Wind
Photovoltaics (PV)
Solar thermal
Geothermal
Biogas
Biomass
Fuel cells
Tidal and wave power. 

There is currently 3 utilities using a Commercial Feed in Tariff in California Counties, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and Sacramento, are paying their businesses 17 cents per kilowatt hour for the Renewable Energy they generate. We can get our Law makers and Regulators to implement a Residential Feed in Tariff, to help us weather Global Warming, insulate our communities from grid failures, generate a fair revenue stream for the Homeowners and protect our Water.

The 17 cents per kilowatt hour allows the Commercial Business owner and the Utility to make a profit.

Commercial Ca. rates are 17 - 24 cents per kilowatt hour.

Implementing a Residential Feed in Tariff at 13 cents per kilowatt hour for the first 2,300 MW, and then allow no more than 3-5 cents reduction in kilowatt per hour, for the first tier Residential rate in you area and for the remaining capacity of Residential Solar, there is a built in Fee for the Utility for using the Grid. A game changer for the Hard Working, Voting, Tax Paying, Home Owner and a Fair Profit for The Utility, a win for our Children, Utilities, and Our Planet. 

We also need to change a current law, California law does not allow Homeowners to oversize their Renewable Energy systems.

Campaign to allow Californian residents to sell electricity obtained by renewable energy for a fair pro-business market price. Will you read, sign, and share this petition?

http://signon.org/sign/let-california-home-owners

Roof top Solar is the new mantra for Solar Leasing Companies with Net-Metering which allows them to replace One Utility with Another, we need to change this policy with a Residential Feed in Tariff that will level the playing field and allow all of us to participate in the State mandated 33% Renewable Energy by 2020.

This petition will ask the California Regulators and Law makers to allocate Renewable Portfolio Standards to Ca. Home Owners for a Residential Feed in Tariff, the RPS is the allocation method that is used to set aside a certain percentage of electrical generation for Renewable Energy in the the State. 

Do not exchange One Utility for Another (Solar Leasing Companies) "Solar is absolutely great as long as you stay away from leases and PPAs. Prices for solar have dropped so dramatically in the past year, that leasing a solar system makes absolutely no sense in today's market.

The typical household system is rated at about 4.75 kW. After subtracting the 30% federal tax credit, the cost would be $9,642 to own this system. The typical cost to lease that same 4.75 kW system would be $35,205 once you totaled up the 20 years worth of lease payments and the 30% federal tax credit that you'll have to forfeit when you lease a system. $9,642 to own or $35,205 to lease. Which would you rather choose?

If you need $0 down financing then there are much better options than a lease or PPA. FHA is offering through participating lenders, a $0 down solar loan with tax deductible interest and only a 650 credit score to qualify. Property Assessed Clean Energy loans are available throughout the state that require no FICO score checks, with tax deductible interest that allow you to make your payments through your property tax bill with no payment due until November 2014. Both of these programs allow you to keep the 30% federal tax credit as well as any applicable cash rebate. With a lease or PPA you'll have to forfeit the 30% tax credit and any cash rebate, and lease or PPA payments are not tax deductible.

Solar leases and PPA served their purpose two years ago when no other viable form of financing was available, but today solar leases and PPAs are two of the most expensive ways to keep a solar system on your roof." Ray Boggs.

Matjaž Ciglar
Matjaž Ciglar

@Susan Gawarecki Not only California's demands, solar panels only can meet whole world consumption on area only five times bigger than US highway systems currently occupies.

So if every highway and mayor road on Earth is covered by solar panels, there will be big surplus of energy, plenty of clean air and less noise.

Every system can and will fail at some point and nuclear plants are not exception... Tree Miles island, Chernobil, Fukushima, next one in your neighbourhood?

Carol Rode-Eggert
Carol Rode-Eggert

@Susan Gawarecki In the past, I've been opposed to nuclear energy. But I've recently become aware of an alternative, less radioactive, but still useful element, called thorium. It's been known to science all along, but was not widely used. Why? Because it's not quite powerful enough to make weapons.

It's more readily available than uranium, and much less environmentally destructive to mine and to store.

Lorena M.
Lorena M.

@Susan Gawarecki

I totally disagree Nuclear must be abolished at all costs. They are not safe just read what is going on in Japan. I think education about reducing consumption and limiting people to less hit them in the pocket book so they really understand about how much power they are using is the way to stop any energy crisis.... I do find it really funny in a state that does not need heating that you can not just be off grid solar. Up here in Canada where temps go down to -40c heating is very hard to take off grid you have such a great opportunity.  

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