Californians paid for the drought in many ways. Homeowners saw their water rates rise. Farmers sacrificed revenue when they idled fields.
And practically everyone spent more on electricity.
Californians’ electricity costs jumped by a combined $2.45 billion from 2012 to 2016 because of severe shortages of cheap hydroelectricity, according to an estimate released Wednesday by the Pacific Institute, an Oakland water policy think tank.
The impact on bills wasn’t enormous in the scheme of things: Last year alone Californians spent almost $39 billion on electricity, according to federal data.
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Nonetheless, the hydro shortage was one of the little-known effects of the just-concluded drought, said the study’s author and institute’s president emeritus, Peter Gleick.
“There are lots of impacts of the drought and we’re just beginning to understand what the impacts were, and they’re not negligible,” Gleick said in an interview. “This was a consequence that we’re having to pay for.”
Gleick said the loss of hydro power created environmental impacts, too. Carbon emissions from the state’s power plants rose by 10 percent during the drought as utilities shifted to conventional sources like natural gas, the study said. Although state officials say utilities are making progress toward meeting California’s mandates on reducing emissions and increasing the use of renewable power sources, Gleick said the hydro shortage represented a temporary setback.
“The drought has been in some ways a temporary bump,” he said. “If the weather were normal we would have emitted even less carbon.”
The institute’s analysis underscores the importance of hydro to California’s energy portfolio. In 2011, the last wet year before the drought began, hydro accounted for 21 percent of the electricity generated in the state, according to the study. In 2015, the worst year of the drought, the percentage fell to 7 percent.
That created cost impacts. Hydro power is cheap, as low as 2 cents a kilowatt hour. Conventional power, from natural gas-fired plants, is about twice as expensive. As their hydro sources dried up, California’s utilities had to resort to costlier forms of energy – and their customers paid.
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. raised rates 1.5 percent in 2014 to reflect the lack of hydro. Roseville Electric, the city-owned utility, imposed a 2 percent drought surcharge in 2014. Sacramento Municipal Utility District held off a year but imposed its own 1.3 percent surcharge in 2015; that raised the average residential rate by $1.22 a month.
Roseville and SMUD removed their surcharges last year. PG&E’s rate increase for this year, which reflects last year’s costs, was dialed back to 0.25 percent. Officials with the utilities said the changes reflect a return to normal or near-normal conditions at their hydro plants.
For instance, SMUD’s system of reservoirs and power plants on the American River has generated twice as much power this year as it did in all of 2015, said SMUD spokesman Chris Capra.
“We are full, we are doing very well as far as hydro goes,” Capra said. “We’ll be using it all summer long.”