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Bizarrely enough, hydropower not considered renewable energy in California

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The new California law mandating 33% renewable energy by 2020 from all California utilities has troubling, if not downright bizarre aspects, some of which will definitely raise the cost of electricity substantially. Yet, this doesn’t need to happen. 

One of the most reliable and inexpensive forms of renewable energy, large hydropower, does not qualify as renewable under the law. In 2009, 11.6% of California power came from renewable sources, while 9.2% came from large hydropower. Yet for inexplicable reasons, large hydro does not count as renewable energy in California (even as small hydro does!). California, in its laudable and admirable attempt to switch to renewable energy, has somehow managed to decree that its biggest supplier of renewable energy does not qualify as being renewable. 

It’s difficult to find any solid information on why this decision was made. Some opine that hydropower is variable because water is sometimes scarce; hence it doesn’t count as renewable. But the same can be said for solar and wind power too. Those of us with suspicious minds might wonder if lobbyists for solar and wind had more than a little say in the writing of the law and if there is a hidden agenda against big hydro. This decision is beyond curious as it clearly benefits the solar and wind power industries to the exclusion of others. And that’s detrimental to California, to taxpayers, and to everyone who pays a power bill.

What’s even more disappointing is that California’s push to utilize renewable energy will be accomplished in major part by importing renewable energy from other states. While the law was touted as a job creation machine for California, it’s difficult to see how many jobs will be created by using clean energy produced elsewhere. This seems more of the smoke and mirrors that Sacramento watchers are all too used to. 

It gets worse, and much more convoluted. California’s refusal to rightfully categorized large hydro as renewable energy will have severely unpleasant ramifications as the cost of electricity will unquestionably rise more than it needed to. For example, California gets power from the Bonneville Power Administration in the Pacific Northwest, which is federal and doesn’t have to comply with state laws. Bonneville has both hydro and wind power and due to the immense snowpack, has told wind farms they will have to shut down periodically this year to allow hydropower to use up some of that water. But this means California cannot use Bonneville power when it is hydro only, and thus must find non-hydro renewable energy elsewhere, presumably at a higher cost.

It is a given that wind and solar developers will be aware of California’s self-imposed predicament and will price their power accordingly. The simplest, most obvious, and greenest solution to this is for California to immediately re-classify large hydro as renewable energy, something which hydropower clearly already is. 

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