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Wet December Could Increase California Hydropower

Jessica Lyons Hardcastle

Hydropower in California may get a boost this year thanks to increased precipitation in December 2012, leading to near-normal snowpack levels in the Sierra mountains this winter, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

Snowpack and its snow water equivalent affect the state’s hydroelectric availability and reliance on sources of various electric generation and imports, EIA explains, and cites the California Department of Water Resources’ Feb. 1, 2013 report, which says snowpack in the northern Sierra Nevada range is 94 percent of normal, year-to-date from October 1. (Seasonal precipitation accumulation is often described in water years, which run from October 1 to September 30.)

The latest snowpack report is lower than that the prior month’s, however, because January precipitation was significantly below normal.

About 14 percent of the nation’s hydroelectric generating capacity is concentrated in California. Since 1989, hydro has accounted for varying portions of electricity generated within the state, from 11 percent in 1992 — a low water year — to a high of 28 percent in 1995.

Hydro output peaks in the spring and early summer as melting snow flows through the river basins. Overall demand for electricity, however, peaks slightly later, at the height of summer, when air conditioners are running most often.

California also imports power from neighboring regions, including more hydropower from the Pacific Northwest.

If hydro is a big part of the energy mix for a particular area, prices will reflect the amount of precipitation, determining whether it’s a good hydro year, Karl Van Orsdol, national account manager with DNV KEMA Energy & Sustainability said in an Energy Manager Today webinar earlier this month. In the webinar, which is available on demand, Van Orsdol discussed factors to consider when purchasing a facility’s energy.



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