Hydropower not considered renewable energy in California

(Crossposted from CAIVN. It’s clear that the push towards renewable energy can be just the same old slimy lobbyists and special interests ramming through bills that benefit them and hurt the rest of us. There is no rational reason why hydropower should not be considered renewable energy in California except that, I’m guessing, the solar and wind industries wanted more of the pie for themselves.)

The new California law mandating 33% renewable energy by 2020 from all California utilities has troubling, if not downright bizarre aspects, some of which will definitely raise the cost of electricity substantially. Yet, this doesn’t need to happen.

One of the most reliable and inexpensive forms of renewable energy, large hydropower, does not qualify as renewable under the law. In 2009, 11.6% of California power came from renewable sources, while 9.2% came from large hydropower. Yet for inexplicable reasons, large hydro does not count as renewable energy in California (even as small hydro does!). California, in its laudable and admirable attempt to switch to renewable energy, has somehow managed to decree that its biggest supplier of renewable energy does not qualify as being renewable.

It’s difficult to find any solid information on why this decision was made. Some opine that hydropower is variable because water is sometimes scarce; hence it doesn’t count as renewable. But the same can be said for solar and wind power too. Those of us with suspicious minds might wonder if lobbyists for solar and wind had more than a little say in the writing of the law and if there is a hidden agenda against big hydro. This decision is beyond curious as it clearly benefits the solar and wind power industries to the exclusion of others. And that’s detrimental to California, to taxpayers, and to everyone who pays a power bill.

What’s even more disappointing is that California’s push to utilize renewable energy will be accomplished in major part by importing renewable energy from other states. While the law was touted as a job creation machine for California, it’s difficult to see how many jobs will be created by using clean energy produced elsewhere. This seems more of the smoke and mirrors that Sacramento watchers are all too used to.

It gets worse, and much more convoluted. California’s refusal to rightfully categorized large hydro as renewable energy will have severely unpleasant ramifications as the cost of electricity will unquestionably rise more than it needed to. For example, California gets power from the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest, which is federal and doesn’t have to comply with state laws. Bonneville has both hydro and wind power and due to the immense snowpack, has told wind farms they will have to shut down periodically this year to allow hydropower to use up some of that water. But this means California cannot use Bonneville power when it is hydro only, and thus must find non-hydro renewable energy elsewhere, presumably at a higher cost.

It is a given that wind and solar developers will be aware of California’s self-imposed predicament and will price their power accordingly. The simplest, most obvious, and greenest solution to this is for California to immediately re-classify large hydro as renewable energy, something which hydropower clearly already is.


  • d.w. mick

    The environmental effects are negative overall. Energy into building a damn and maintaining it are neither green nor renewable. Author is woefully ignorant, probably thinks ethanol is renewable too.

    • And of course the highly toxic substances used to create solar panels are totally environmentally neutral as is building ginormous wind turbines and transporting the parts for long distances.

      Perhaps you could explain then why California categorizes small hydro as renewable while large hydro isn’t? Also, saying hydro isn’t renewable is, well, just silly. The water drives turbines. How is that not renewable?

      I’ve bashed ethanol many times here. You might try reading what’s posted here before commenting. Just a thought.

  • Jac

    While the construction and maintenance of a dam and any other energy source are no doubt not good for the environment, the thing that sets hydropower apart from other forms of renewal energy is its impact on the ecosystems it functions in. Especially in America, we see fish populations that many people depend on completely depleted by the disruption in their natural ecosystem. Sustainability is not just about using eco-friendly materials, but it’s also about maintaining the natural resources that the local community and country depend on. Small hydro power probably isn’t as detrimental as large dams.

    If you’re more interested in the topic, look into the affects the Hoover dam has had on salmon populations in the the Northwest.

    • I will, thanks. When Hoover Dam was built they probably gave little thought to the environmental impact. Maybe today, big hydro could be built so the impact is less? Although I doubt much big hydro could be built today due to costs, siting, NIMBYs, etc.

  • Andrew Orihuela

    It makes sense to categorise small hydro as renewable and not large hydro. Your article makes it seem like it’s a scam purported by lobbyists. I agree with the above posters that large scale hydro has adverse environmental impacts. But that aside, large scale hydro is best left to federal and state governments to handle and they don’t need these incentives. Renewable energy incentives are for small developers. Allowing large scale hydro to compete as a renewable would drive down prices so much that it would make things almost impossible for solar, wind, and small scale hydro , which still need help to be competitive at this stage of development. Besides, can you imagine applying a 30% tax credit to a large-scale dam???

    • But what of the large hydro has already been built. Why is that not renewable?

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