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Drought diminishes hydroelectric yield in energy-hungry California

| Saturday, March 21, 2015, 9:51 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO — Flying over the Sierra Nevada as California entered its fourth year of drought, the state's energy chief looked down and saw bare granite cloaked in brown haze — not the usual white peaks heaped with snow that would run the state's hydroelectric dams for the year.

Spring is arriving with the Pacific Northwest measuring near record low snowfall, and much of the rest of the West below average. But what California is experiencing is historically low snowpack — a meager accumulation that has serious implications not only for the state but potentially for the entire West.

Snowpack at 12 percent of average in the Sierra Nevada means there is less runoff to feed rivers that run through dams to generate cleanly produced hydroelectric power. Despite the state's ambitious clean air goals, officials are turning to more costly fossil fuel plants to fill some of the power gap. They also will seek more hydroelectricity imports in a region expected to have markedly less to offer this summer.

At a minimum, “we'll keep the lights on,” said Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the California Energy Commission. “We're not concerned about not having power.”

“What we're concerned about,” Weisenmiller said, “is the power is going to come from different sources not as benign” for the health of people and the environment as hydroelectricity.

A study by the nonprofit Pacific Institute think tank estimates that three years of waning hydroelectricity have cost utility ratepayers $1.4 billion. The increased reliance on fossil fuel caused an 8 percent rise in emissions of carbon dioxide in California, the Pacific Institute said.

Robert Oglesby, executive director of the state energy commission, said he doesn't expect the decline of hydro power— and the boost in gas-fired power— to set back California's goal of generating 33 percent of electricity from renewable energy by 2020. That's because large hydroelectric dams, which are controversial because they block natural river flows, are not officially included with solar, wind and other sources in California's renewable energy equation.

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