california solar and hydro power

  • Although the scale of California's conventional hydropower remains much larger than that of solar power, solar's rapid growth provides a meaningful contribution to the grid.
  • Solar power can work nearly anywhere, but installing it where it's actually sunny much of the time pays big dividends.

After reading a San Jose Mercury article with the unwieldy title, “Drought threatens California’s hydroelectricity supply, but solar makes up the gap” I was intrigued enough to do a little fact-checking on state-level  electricity statistics. The article quoted the head of the California Energy Commission, who implied that solar power additions were sufficient to make up for any shortfall in hydro, historically one of the state’s biggest energy sources. My initial skepticism about that claim turned out to be largely unfounded.

Solar has been growing rapidly, especially in California, but even with nearly 3,000 MW of photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal generation in place, it’s still well short of the scale of California’s 10,000 MW of hydropower dams, especially when you consider that the latter aren’t constrained to operate only in daylight hours. However, I also know better than to respond to a claim like this without checking the data on how much energy these installations actually deliver.

My first look at the Energy Information Administration’s annual generation data seemed to confirm my suspicions. In 2012 California’s hydropower facilities produced 26.8 million megawatt-hours (MWh), while grid-connected solar generated just 1.4 million MWh. However, when I looked at more recent monthly data, the mismatch was much smaller, due to solar’s strong growth in the Golden State. For example, in September 2013 California solar power generated 435 MWh, or nearly 24% of hydro’s 1.8 million MWh.

The potential drought benefits of solar stand out even more sharply when we compare the growth in solar generation to the change in output from hydro. Last year solar electricity in the state increased by 2.4 million MWh, compared to 2012, while hydropower fell by 2.3 million MWh. That added solar power won’t provide grid operators the same flexibility as the lost hydropower, because of its cyclical nature, but it is clearly now growing at a rate and scale that makes it a serious contributor.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that solar in California is still nowhere near the scale of the state’s biggest electricity source, natural gas generation, which in 2013 produced over 100 million MWh, or 57% of the state’s non-imported electricity supply. Gas is also filling much of the roughly 18 million MWh shortfall left by the early retirement of Southern California Edison’s San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station last summer, and if the state’s drought worsens, gas will be the main backup for further declines in hydropower.

Yet solar’s growing contribution to the state’s energy mix provides a clear demonstration that while generous state and federal policies can make installing PV economically attractive nearly anywhere, it’s abundant sunshine like California’s that makes it a useful energy source, especially when drought conditions reduce the output of other, water-dependent energy supplies.

A different version of this posting was previously published on Energy Trends Insider.

Photo Credit: California Solar and Hydro Power/shutterstock