Drought could cascade through state infrastructure

California’s drought disaster is real, and could cascade through several levels of the state’s infrastructure. Here’s what could happen:

1. A cutback of 95 percent of water for some farmers and 20 percent for Southern California cities;

2. A resulting loss of hydropower from pumped storage reservoirs;

3. Wildfires.

Throw in the shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which isn’t caused by the drought, and the electricity crisis could be even worse.

To begin with, an untimely high-pressure “ridge” in the Pacific Ocean about four miles high and 2,000 miles long has caused a three-year drought. As National Geographic described it, “Storms that would normally soak a parched state — and build up California’s snowpack — are bouncing off the dome of high pressure, heading into southern Canada, then riding the jet stream south into the U.S. midwest.”

This high-pressure ridge has diverted the monsoon rainstorms that California depends on for snowpack in the Sierra Mountain Range that fills water reservoirs.

The U.S. Weather Service Climate Prediction Center has forecast that the present drought will last another three months. The 90-day rainfall forecast has been correct about 60 percent of the time in the last 20 years.

The prospects for what Californians call a “March Miracle,” where sudden monsoon rainstorms appear late in the rainy season, are not high.  The last time California experienced a “March Miracle” was in 1991.

Normal drought

In California, drought is normal. What California depends on is a wave of monsoon rainstorms in a single year occurring every three to five years to fill reservoirs.  When weather conditions result in a skipping of one cycle of monsoon rainstorms, the result in an official drought emergency.

However, a drought crisis also occurs because California has not built any new water reservoirs since 1973.

The last reservoir built as part of the California State Water Project was Castaic Lake in 1973, which is a storage reservoir located north of Los Angeles. It is not a water-capture reservoir.

The last major reservoir built by the U.S. government as part of the federal Central Valley Project was the New Melones Lake and Dam in 1979, which sit mostly empty because of environmental diversions of water that flow to the sea.

Moreover, the drought is not entirely due to a dry spell and lack of water storage.  About 50 percent of the water in the federal Central Valley water project has been reduced since 1990 due to court orders and regulatory decisions to divert water to the environment.

Less hydropower means higher electricity prices

The Fitch bond ratings agency has warned that California’s protracted drought could put financial pressure on public-power entities in their ability to service their bond debts. (The public-power agencies, such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, are run by governments. They are separate from the private power companies: Southern California Edison, San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric.)

The eight public-power agencies rated by Fitch in California obtain from 10 percent to 32 percent of their power from hydroelectric sources. What is a concern to bond rating agencies is if these power entities have to shift to more expensive gas-fired power, or even worse, to very expensive renewable power, which means wind, solar and geothermal.  Much of new power would likely have to come from out-of-state providers.  California already depends on imports for 25 percent of its electric supply.

To comply with SB X1-2 of 2011, by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, the California Energy Commission studied whether importing cheap hydropower from British Columbia would meet California’s stringent renewable power criteria. The CEC concluded it would be very difficult to consider British Columbia hydropower as renewable power for California. This means that California could not replace its lost hydropower due to the drought with cheap hydropower from British Columbia, because that hydropower is somehow considered dirtier than California hydropower.

In general, California’s hydropower production ranges from 60,000 gigawatt hours per year in a peak year (1983) to a low of about 20,000 gigawatt hours per year from 1986 to 1992, the last prolonged natural drought in California. California’s hydropower dropped 22.3 percent in 2013, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Major concern

The major concern is the loss of electric capacity of pumped hydro storage. Electricity cannot be economically stored except in water reservoirs where water is spilled to drive turbines that produce electricity.  Pumped reservoirs are where the water is pumped up to the reservoir rather than flowing into the reservoir.

California’s major pumped storage facilities are the Castaic Power Plant north of Los Angeles, with a capacity of 1,566 megawatts; and the Helms Pumped Storage Plant near Fresno, with 1,200 megawatts. Additionally, the San Luis Reservoir near Los Banos has a 424-megawatt pumped-back hydropower storage facility. These three pump-back facilities can generate enough capacity for 3,190,000 households.

If California should lose the Castaic and Helms pump-back hydropower facilities, natural gas power plants would be needed as replacements. The higher demand for natural gas then might drive natural gas prices higher. Something similar is part of what happened during the California Electricity Crisis of 2000-01, when a drought in the Pacific Northwest curtailed hydropower from Oregon and Washington and the price of gas-powered electricity skyrocketed.

The potential loss of 3,190 megawatts of hydropower due to drought exceeds the 2,200 megawatts of power lost from the shut down of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Overblown concern

One thing overblown is the concern about loss of primary hydroelectric power generated by dams due to the drought that are part of the State Water Project. It takes roughly the same amount of power to lift water over the Tehachapi Mountain Range to convey water to Southern California as is generated by small hydropower plants that are downhill from the Tehachapis.

The purported “mystery” of why Lake Castaic near Los Angeles is nearly full while other reservoirs are at 55 percent of their capacity is also misunderstood. Southern California water agencies have prudently filled Lake Castaic in anticipation of the drought and to reduce any future higher pumping costs should hydropower not be available.

Wildfires and more power outages

The drought has already advanced the fire season to the winter months in semi-arid Southern California. The still active Colby Fire near Glendora, sparked by errant campers, is indicative of the dry vegetation in the Angeles National Forest north of Los Angeles.

Only five homes were destroyed thus far in the Colby Fire. But forest fires also can cause power outages.

A report by the California Independent System Operator, dated July 8, 2013, stated several large wild fires caused “reliability challenges” in the state’s power grid.  A June 2013 fire north of Los Angeles caused “multiple forced outages” on the 500-Kilovolt Midway-Vincent power lines that serves as the connection to the Pacific Northwest.  The 2011 failure of a 500-Kilovolt line linking Arizona and Los Angeles caused a power failure affecting 1 million people in San Diego and Orange Counties for a half day.

If the worst scenarios detailed above occur at the same time, they could cause blackouts and higher power prices from the persistent problem of downed power lines from fires. Power lines can’t be just buried to avoid fires from downed lines.

Emerging High Voltage Direct Current technology could provide an economically feasible way to bury high voltage electric transmission lines. But such new technology is not proven yet and would take decades to install due to the incredible cost to rewire the entire grid.

Shutdown of San Onofre and 19 coastal power plants

The current three-year drought could not have come along at a worse time. California has not only shut down the 2,200 megawatt San Onofre plant. It is also in the process of decommissioning 7,400 megawatts of power from 19 coastal power plants because they use ocean water to cool turbines that destroy fish larvae. Combined losses: 9,600 megawatts.

A variety of new power resources are being used to replace the lost power.  Coastal communities that thought they were getting rid of ugly power plants in their backyards are finding this isn’t so.  The reason is that shifting to highly unreliable renewable power plants locks in the need for backup power plants located nearby.  For example, the Los Angles Department of Water and Power is replacing its nine coastal power plants with quick-starting combined-cycle natural gas powered plants.

Another problem is voltage, which is like water pressure in a pipeline: the pressure has to be kept up continuously. The old fossil-fueled power plant in Redondo Beach has had to be retrofitted as a voltage regulator. Residents have thus complained that “stray voltage” has caused a number of health problems in the community. But the Redondo power plant also provides voltage to the regional electric grid.

The LADWP is phasing out its reliance on so-called “dirty” coal powered plants. But those plants are located in Utah and Nevada, where they don’t pollute California’s urban smog traps.  Coal power still comprises about 35 percent of LADWP’s energy portfolio.

Green power has also resulted in the need for more, not fewer, transmission lines. In Chino Hills, a court has ordered that the new power lines near residential areas be put underground for a 3.5-mile segment at an extra cost of $224 million, including $17 million in land from the City of Chino Hills.  That equates to a whopping $64 million per mile. It would be uneconomic to bury the entire power grid.

Californians sometimes say hot, parched conditions are “earthquake weather.” Scientists say there’s no such thing.

But what is real is the threat of cascading conditions that could lead to electricity blackouts. Little is being done to prevent similar future threats.

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