Water shortage could bring electricity grid failure

Water shortage could bring electricity grid failure


California statewide power plantsCalifornia’s Big Three energy regulating agencies just warned in a joint letter to the California Water Resources Control Board that planned water curtailments for 2014 would present a danger to grid reliability and create “substantial potential for serious public health and safety impacts.” The three agencies are the California Public Utilities Commission, the California Independent System Operator and the California Energy Commission. The latter also cautioned that steam-generation power plants fueled by natural gas need to get sufficient water this summer.

The WRCB is about to adopt emergency water curtailment regulations for this summer just in areas where agricultural water users have junior water rights. These regulations would go so far as to mandate “no potable water will be used for outdoor landscaping while this approval is in effect” (page R-3).  Household use of water will be restricted to 50 gallons per person per day in those areas.  The average water use in California is about 196 gallons per person per day.

In a May 9 report by the Cal-ISO, “2014 Summer Loads and Resources Assessments,” California’s grid operator estimated 1,150 megawatts of gas-fired steam generation is at risk of shut down due to curtailed water supplies (see Executive Summary Page 2).  That is enough power to electrify 1,150,000 homes per hour.

Northern Cal, South Orange County, San Diego County at risk 

The report was specific where the potential failure would occur:

“In considering the drought situation for the summer of 2014, the ISO is following the potential impact of thermal (steam) units being out of service due to water supply curtailments.  Among the 260 thermal power plants greater than 20 MW (megawatts), three facilities in Northern California totaling 1,150 MW have been identified to be at risk of having water supply curtailments. … Water supplies to thermal generation will likely be of a greater concern in 2015 if the current drought continues.” 

The Cal-ISO report also warns about another weak link in the power grid for 2014:

“If critical high-voltage transmission lines are out of service, due to wildfires or other conditions, deficient voltage (pressure) levels may occur under peak load conditions that could trigger localized customer outages.  Furthermore, the absence of SONGS (San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station) results in potential overloading of local transmission lines under certain contingencies. 

“Until longer-term mitigations are in place, southern Orange County and San Diego will remain susceptible to reliability concerns and will require close attention during summer operations…” (page 34).

Renewable energy to the rescue? 

The ISO also indicated there could be a double threat of loss of natural gas supplies:

“Because California has relatively large share of natural gas generation, a potential shortage of natural gas could create reliability issues on the power grid. ...

“Greater fuel diversity through integration of renewable energy sources is helping to mitigate this risk” (page 11). 

However, as retired electric engineer, and founding member of Coalition for Energy Solutions, Willem Post cautioned in an email:

“About 65 percent of the hours of the year, solar energy is minimal or zero. About 30 percent of the hours of the year, wind energy is minimal or zero.  Many of these hours overlap and occur AT RANDOM.”

Drought vs. energy

This summer California is caught on the horns of a dilemma of drought and energy. If it curtails water deliveries to agricultural users with junior water rights, as planned, this will conserve water needed for carryover into 2015. But doing so may also result in threatening the reliability of the electric grid for the summer of 2014.

California decision-makers may be facing the quandary of holding water for fish this year, for farmers next year — or releasing it this summer for steam power plants to keep alive grandmothers on respirators and dialysis machines.

Emergency water regulations to be adopted by the State Water Resources Control Board would not apply statewide, but only in those areas where agricultural users have junior water rights and have been told to curtail water use.  Some of these users have health and welfare exemptions.


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  1. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 2 July, 2014, 17:46

    It should have been added that just because the affected steam power plants are in northern California, that those power plants may have contracts to serve urban San Francisco, San Jose, or Sacramento. And once there is grid failure there can be grid congestion trying to back up the shut down power plant that could also cause problems.

    Reply this comment
    • Wolfman
      Wolfman 3 July, 2014, 08:54

      Just send all the illegal aliens back to where they came from and we would have more water

      Reply this comment
  2. Rich
    Rich 3 July, 2014, 05:53

    I find it interesting that water is now being used as the new FEAR in media .Here in california we always have had water issues and always will .You can force people to in cities and towns to water only a few days a week on there property with water meters but the farmer across the street is pumping ground water day and night and is only out electrical costs with no meter . When it comes to conservation of water it isin’t across the board and farmers have no incentive to do anything because they are not being forced to . It is known that AG is using way more water and is the biggest water user when compared to many towns in california but the people pay the price .Water wells are coming up contaminated from nitrates and its because of the farming practices and fertilizers they use . Now the people are forced to shut down more wells in there cities and towns or have to install costly filtration systems . Meanwhile the farmer is pumping away to no end .Until farmers are forced to conserve water like everybody else has to the water issue will only get worse .To have an effective water conservation everyone has to be on board and do there part .Im paying through the arse for my water and so should everybody else !

    Reply this comment
    • Bill Gore
      Bill Gore 5 July, 2014, 07:53

      Lay off the farmers, amigo. They were here first and have made the Central Valley
      the world’s breadbasket/fruit and nut basket.

      The only ag-related super water waster that comes to mind in the Central Valley is rice, and since rice in the Central Valley is now the domain of very well-connected mega corporations (like ADM) politicians and water decision-makers won’t touch it. That delicious cal rose rice you enjoy in your sushi comes from california, grown in the desert with water subsidized by US the taxpayers. A DIRECT subsidy to the corporate bottom line. A HUGE water waster.

      Meanwhile urban californians are henpecked to turn off the water when brushing teeth, take showers so short they are really sponge baths, not flush the toilet (yuck) etc etc. All so ADM can get another 0.085 cents per share direct from the taxpayers……

      Reply this comment
    • Wayne Lusvardi
      Wayne Lusvardi 5 July, 2014, 11:19

      There is no water subsidy in the Central Valley. Taxpayers do not subsidize the water. Farmers pay for the capital cost to build the system and to operate it. Yes, the interest rate on the 1930’s bonds to build the Central Valley Project is zero percent, but that would be the same for California’s water bond today. California wants to put on the ballot a $6 to $11 billion water bond and maybe the tax exempt interest rate on those bonds would be 3% to 4% while inflation is running 3%. If inflation goes back to its historical 4% per year those bonds would be paid back with effectively 0% interest. So Central Valley Farmers are not getting any direct taxpayer subsidy nor are they getting a break on interest rates any more than California’s water bond would.

      As for rice farming, those rice fields are often in the Delta or in Coachella Valley where the water inundates the land anyway and serves as a habitat for migratory birds. Then after that water is used for growing rice it can also be conveyed to cities for urban needs. Some of it recharges groundwater basins. The use of water for rice farming is a multiplier not a greedy water grab. Go talk to the rice farmers. Marc Reisner who wrote Cadillac Desert book went and talked with rice farmers after he wrote his book and changed his mind and recanted what he wrote.

      Reply this comment
      • Bill Gore
        Bill Gore 5 July, 2014, 18:59

        Thanks Wayne-
        There is, however, an ADM rice processing plant right right next to the 5 freeway, I think north of Sacramento.
        I’d be surprised if the water is reconveyed to cities after use in rice farming, but you know much more about it than I do.

        Reply this comment
        • Wayne Lusvardi
          Wayne Lusvardi 5 July, 2014, 19:29

          I don’t know more about it than you and always want to learn.

          I should track this question down and do a bit more research.


          Reply this comment
      • Wayne Lusvardi
        Wayne Lusvardi 6 July, 2014, 18:41

        What is the difference between a wetland and a rice field?

        Both are habitat to migratory birds, ducks, and geese. Both teem with insects that provide the food chain for birds and reptiles. The difference is the rice field is economically productive, generates property and sales taxes, and provides productive jobs. The wetland takes money out of the economy for so-called restoration and studies and provides subsidized jobs for those in various government agencies and conservancies. Another difference: rice fields are evil and Capitalist and wetlands are compassionate, caring, and stopping the catastrophic End of the World. How can a rice field compete with that?

        Reply this comment
    • eck
      eck 7 July, 2014, 20:03

      Show me the data for your alleged contamination. You’re obviously one of the coastal “elite” and thus don’t care about food costs – correlated to water costs – for the poorer citzens.

      Reply this comment
      • Wayne Lusvardi
        Wayne Lusvardi 7 July, 2014, 20:56

        Coastal elite?
        Don’t care about food costs?

        We have lost a meaningful discussion when you resort to personal attacks and unfounded accusations. It is the sign of someone who has lost the argument because they have nothing else to say but cliches and to accuse the other person while claiming the higher moral ground.

        Reply this comment
  3. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 3 July, 2014, 09:18

    It is wet years, not dry years like this year, that are super critical for water storage because California has to store up water in those years for the normal dry years. And in the average wet year, Environmental Water for fish runs and wildlife uses 64% of the system water and ag only 28%. A U.C. Berkeley study found that where the most waste of water is, is with Environmental Water because unlike ag, it is used so inefficiently. For example, the $1 billion San Joaquin River Restoration Project goal was to provide a habitat for 500 fish!

    Also, the groundwater that farmers use is not available to the hydraulic water system of the State Water Project or the Central Valley Project, so it does not rob water away from cities or wildlife. Also, farmers have legal water rights to much of that water.

    Go talk to a contractor who installs drip irrigation systems in the Central Valley. They are super busy installing drip systems, contrary to your statement that farmers have no incentive for conservation.

    California is roughly using the same amount of water it did in the 1960’s with double the population. That 50% increase in water availability came mostly from agriculture, not from cities or environmental water.

    We don’t need a “forced” totalitarian system of water conservation for farmers that you advocate. Farmers have spend $2 billion of their own monies for water conservation since 2000.

    Nitrates are natural salts not poisons or insecticide chemicals. The so-called ‘Blue Baby Crisis’ from nitrates was found to be a total hoax. You might read my story “AB 69 ‘Solves’ Non-Existent Blue Baby Crisis.

    I found most of your comments cliches and not fact based.

    Reply this comment
  4. Denver
    Denver 6 July, 2014, 08:05

    Mebbe we should give California to Mexico? They seem made for one another.

    Reply this comment

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