Our View: State has a chance to give hydropower its long overdue green energy title

A power plant at Don Pedro Reservoir sends electricity to customers of the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts.
A power plant at Don Pedro Reservoir sends electricity to customers of the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. gstapley@modbee.com

Modesto and Turlock made it onto the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times a few days ago, but not for reasons we might hope.

They’re paying attention to legislation in Sacramento that would make a rule addressing climate change a little more fair for us, meaning customers of the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts. That asinine rule already has cost everyone buying electricity or farm water from either utility tens of millions of dollars.

What rule could possibly be that unfair, or costly? The crazy one that says hydropower isn’t green energy.

Hydropower is electricity generated when water falls from one level to another in a dam, pushing turbines before flowing on out into a river. It’s simply carbon-free energy from gravity, about as green as you can get.

We also get clean, renewable energy from solar panels and windmills. All are better, in the eyes of most rational people, than burning coal — a particularly dirty source — or natural gas, which is much cleaner than coal but still emits greenhouse gases.

Over the years, California leaders warmed to the idea that we should be world leaders in renewable energy. So they set goals for getting off nasty fossil fuels with deadlines attached for utilities to phase out those energy sources, while phasing in green sources. The trouble is, they have consistently ignored common sense by refusing to acknowledge 100 percent carbon-free, river-kissed electricity as a green source in official definitions.

So what’s the big deal?

The short answer: It’s costing us, meaning 222,000 families and businesses in the Modesto and Turlock regions, a lot of money.

Because they’re not allowed to count hydropower in their clean energy quotas, MID was forced to invest $85 million in solar and wind generation in recent years, and TID had to fork out $150 million for similar projects.

And that’s not all. Goals of Senate Bill 100, passed last year by Sacramento legislators, require that 60 percent of utilities’ electricity must come from renewable sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2045. MID figures on spending another $155 million, and TID, an additional $300 million, to comply.

Well, those utilities are rich, you might say; they’ll just have to suck it up. But like any business facing increasing costs, MID and TID are passing those costs to us, the ratepayers. That means we’re all paying more for electricity than we should, thanks to unfair rules imposed by state leaders.

Here is something truly mind-bending: MID and TID eventually will be allowed to count hydropower from Don Pedro Reservoir in their green portfolios, for the 2045 deadline, because nothing could be greener; they just can’t do it for the 2030 deadline. Such reasoning defies logic.

Senate Bill 386, by Sen. Anna Caballero, would fix things by saying hydropower is clean and green now, it will be in 2030 and it will be in 2045. Giving credit now would save MID customers alone $14 million over the next decade, the district says.

It’s not a new argument. Other current and previous representatives have tried variations over the years, without much success. Assemblyman Adam Gray, whose district includes Merced County and part of Stanislaus County, reminded colleagues last year while debating SB 100 that too many of our people are poor. Yet many of us drive farther to work than most Californians, and live in a warmer climate requiring more electricity to power air conditioning, he said. Ignoring hydropower as a green source qualified SB 100 as a “talking-point bill,” Gray fumed, “so we can all pat ourselves on the back and pretend like we’ve done something.”

He now supports SB 386 and Caballero, a Salinas Democrat whose district stretches to the Valley and includes parts of Stanislaus and Merced counties. In opposition are a host of environmental groups and progressive organizations.

The Chronicle’s editorial board agrees with environmental advocates, calling the bill “a loophole for dam operators (that) will chip away at the overall goal” of carbon-free electricity. Never mind that hydropower is totally carbon-free. (We’ll skip the fact that the Chron for some reason mentioned only MID in its missive. The truth: TID is twice as large as MID, generating twice as much electricity, and TID operates the dam. One wonders if the Chron realizes that San Francisco, which gets much of its water from the Tuolumne via Hetch Hetchy pipes, helped build Don Pedro and retains an interest in the reservoir.)

Don Pedro, 40 miles east of Modesto, has given us electricity for nearly 100 years. Having added natural gas plants and solar and wind projects since, Don Pedro now accounts for only 8 percent of MID’s total output, and from 20 to 35 percent of TID’s.

But that 8 percent for MID translates to $14 million out of our pockets through 2030, if Sacramento legislators ignore us like they often do.