How Green Is My Hydro

By Published On: January 23, 2004

One certainly cannot read “alternative energy” on President George W. Bush’s lips. He devoted one measly line to conservation in his state of the union address this week. Despite the lack of federal cheerleading, renewable power is getting a lot of play in California, especially since the state passed the renewables portfolio standard (RPS) that requires investor-owned utilities to boost their green power resources to one-fifth of their supplies by 2017. While the complex RPS bill is slowly being translated by regulatory agencies for implementation, public power agencies’ acceptance of a renewables standard is moving in fits and starts. A large percentage of the non-fossil-fueled electricity supplies held by several Northern and Southern California public power agencies come from big hydropower facilities. Under the RPS law, these local entities are required to develop green power plans. Many insist-and here’s the rub-that large-scale hydropower count as renewable energy. However, under state law, private utilities’ green mandate allows them to count only hydro dams that produce under 30 megawatts as “renewable.” That limitation, included because of the environmental degradation wrought by dams, was not expressly imposed on municipal agencies. As a result, a bill may be in the works to clarify the issue. While many local power agencies want to get the green credit they say they deserve, they also don’t want the state to tell them what to do. Furthermore, they chafe under what they consider a restrictive definition of renewable resources. “If the state is going to have a debate on renewables, it makes little sense to apply such a narrow definition,” said Tony Braun, counsel for the California Municipal Utilities Association. Policy makers need to decide what they are trying to achieve. “Fuel diversity, clear air, less reliance on natural gas?” he asked. If those are the goals, then many munis are very green. The RPS law was designed to promote growth in new renewables, countered Matt Freedman, an attorney with the ratepayer advocate The Utility Reform Network. If big hydro is treated as green, the standard would be “meaningless” because Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison would satisfy the portfolio mandate, he said. In addition, given the hefty hydropower resources of PG&E, Edison, and some public utilities, counting it into the mix “would dramatically alter the playing field.” Braun acknowledged the environmental rationale for limiting the incorporation of large hydro under the RPS but noted that the facilities at issue are already built. “It makes no sense to tear them out,” he argued. Many environmentalists, however, would disagree. Other states that have passed renewables portfolio laws do not consider large hydro facilities eligible for green credits. When the RPS law was being debated, there were efforts to include the municipal power agencies under the green portfolio mandate. Muni agencies, with the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (LADWP) in the lead, successfully fended off those efforts. LADWP is considered the biggest renewables offender in the group by clean power advocates given that half of its juice comes from coal-fired plants and green power makes up about 3 percent of its energy supplies. “The law recognizes the policy decision the state made; that the state has jurisdiction and regulatory responsibility over investor-owned utilities,” said John Fistolera, Northern California Power Agency legislative director. Unlike their private counterparts, power agencies are governed by local regulatory boards, not the California Public Utilities Commission. During the crisis, they “didn’t abandon their obligation to serve,” Fistolera added. In spite of the ongoing debate, many of the munis are taking steps to increase their green power portfolios, exclusive of large-scale hydro. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District adopted a renewable energy policy that beats the RPS’s requirement. Excluding its hydro supplies, which provide about 20 percent of the muni’s demand, SMUD plans to makes its portfolio 10 percent green by 2006. That includes up to 15 MW of solar, on top of the existing 10 MW in use. SMUD is also considering a 45 MW boost from its wind project in Solano County. By 2011, the district hopes to push nonhydro renewables to 20 percent. This would involve adding another 20-25 MW of solar. Options for creating another 250 to 400 MW of green power are under consideration, said SMUD spokesperson Chris Capra. Roseville Electric, which continues to grow at a rapid clip to keep pace with the local population boom, voted last September to increase its green power portfolio. The goal is to have renewable power meet 20 percent of the muni’s expanded load by 2020. “We adopted a strategy that would get up to 5 MW of renewables the next five years,” said Tom Habashi, Roseville Electric director. Habashi added that his agency would not limit the amount of renewables it purchased to match the level of ratepayer-funded public-goods money, which the state RPS law allows private utilities to do. “That would negate the goal you set for yourself” and be contrary to the spirit of the law, he said. Subtracting its large supply of hydropower, Roseville’s green energy meets about 15 percent of its needs. Much of the nonhydro fuel-220 MW-comes from geothermal power produced at The Geysers. Alameda Power & Telecom’s renewable supplies are well in excess of the renewables portfolio standard, with more than half of its power colored green. The amount grows to 80 percent if large hydro is factored in, but the resource “is too big to be counted toward the RPS,” Don Ruston, Alameda’s utility planning supervisor, acknowledged. About 50 percent, or 23 MW, of Alameda Power’s renewables portfolio comes from geothermal resources. A mix of renewables makes up a little more than 25 percent of supplies maintained by Santa Clara’s Silicon Valley Power. Of that, 21 percent comes from geothermal, 3 percent from small hydro, and about 1 percent from biomass, with solar providing less than 1 percent. According to Larry Owens, Silicon’s marketing manager, the agency started making long-term investments in alternative power in the 1960s. “We wanted to get away from fuel cost fluctuations, and our customers are very interested in stability,” he said. The chances of public power advocates passing a bill that would count big hydro as renewable under the RPS are slim. “Dream on,” said John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. White said that the state was not going to change its definition of qualifying green power. “We would like to have a more constructive dialogue with munis,” he added. There is talk, however, of a push for legislation that would require only Los Angeles to meet the state’s renewables standard. Perhaps that way, LADWP might be persuaded to leave coal power to the fossil-fuel cheerleader in the White House.

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now