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California Officials: Drought Shouldn't Upset Energy Outlook

As the first storms in more than a month swept through California Thursday, concentrated in the northern half of the state, water officials said the state's snow pack was at a 50-year low point for this time in winter. But state energy planners aren't worried about California's energy mix, which includes a good portion (up to 15%) of hydroelectric supplies.

State snow surveyors in the Sierra Nevada mountain range Thursday completed their annual mid-winter measurements and declared snow levels were 12% of normal for this time of year, underscoring the severity of the state's stubborn drought. At the same time, Gov. Jerry Brown met in Southern California with some of his drought leaders in the driest part of the state.

"This year both renewable and natural gas-fired generation resources should not be affected by the drought," according to a California Energy Commission (CEC) analysis given to NGI Thursday. "The flow of natural gas into California remains unaffected."

Despite the dire water forecasts (see Daily GPI, Jan.8), officials at the CEC do not expect a major impact from the drought this year. If it would continue into next year, that might change their outlook.

Hydroelectric generation in the state should be available this year, although some areas may see some reduced output in terms of the number of hours when hydro supplies will be available. Pumped storage, such as the large Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Helms system, should not be impacted, according to CEC analysts tracking the state power system.

"Out-of-state hydroelectric generation, primarily Hoover Dam and the Columbia River system in the Pacific Northwest are expected to be fully available through at least 2015," a CEC analyst told NGI on Thursday. "This is despite possible impacts on municipal and agricultural water supplies in the Southwest because municipal and agricultural water shortages are not related to Hoover Dam's ability to generate hydroelectricity."

The Columbia River system is now at about 80% of normal snow pack and water levels. It is expected to reduce normal power supply levels in the Pacific Northwest, the CEC analyst said.

Renewables and gas-fired generation resources "...would provide the ability to fill in should hydro generation be reduced," the CEC analysis said. "However, wholesale costs would be expected to increase at an unknown amount."

According to the CEC, natural gas production in regions important to the state (the Southwest, Rockies and western Canada) has so far escaped any adverse condition such as well freezes or pipeline disruptions due to the extreme cold that hit most of the nation.

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