How the Drought Affects California's Energy, Economy and Emissions Goals

Water is a precious resource. A changing climate is resulting in droughts being more severe and pronounced and putting our water supply at risk.

After two consecutive dry years and record-breaking dry conditions through the beginning of 2014, Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr. declared a drought State of Emergency in January. Later that month, the State Water Project announced a zero allocation—for the first time ever in its 54-year history—for all of its urban and agricultural customers.

California is now in a three-year drought period. The state is experiencing less total rainfall, less snowpack in the mountains and earlier snowmelt. This means that less water is available to generate hydroelectricity. Also, less snowpack that is melting earlier could reduce the amount of water that generates hydropower during the summer months when electricity demand and prices are highest.

Drought Impacts on Hydroelectricity

There is a natural variation in year-over-year hydroelectricity production. It currently supplies between 14 to 19 percent of the state's electricity, down from closer to 60 percent in the 1950s. This is due in part to an increase in renewable energy that has come online. In 2013 alone, 3,300 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy capacity became operational.

Three snowshed areas have been most affected by the drought: Northern Sierra/Trinity, Central Sierra and Southern Sierra. The Sierra Nevada snowpack typically melts in the spring and summer. It collects in reservoirs and provides about one-third of the water Californians use each year. Even with recent storms, reservoir storage is significantly below average. As of April 2014, Shasta was at 62 percent of its historical average. Similarly, Oroville storage was at 65 percent and Folsom Lake was at 71 percent.

California imports an estimated 3 - 4 percent of its total hydroelectricity from the Pacific Northwest—which is projecting surpluses through 2018—and the Hoover Dam in the Pacific Southwest, where conditions for hydroelectric generation appear stable through 2015.

With less water being available to generate hydroelectricity, natural gas and renewable energy supplies will be used to make up the difference. Given that hydropower is one of the least expensive types of energy and has zero emissions, other types of energy used to make up the difference will have additional costs and emissions. Natural gas is more expensive and produces greenhouse gas emissions. While renewable energy does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, it is more expensive than hydropower. Some utilities rely more on hydroelectricity than others. Most have resources spread through more than one snowshed or watershed, which could mitigate shortfalls in one area if greater production is realized in another.

The effects of the drought and additional power replacement costs will not be immediately known.

Monitoring the Situation

The California Energy Commission is part of the state's Drought Task Force that is monitoring and assessing drought impacts on hydropower generation, and by extension, the California electricity supply.

The Energy Commission is also part of the interagency Electricity Working Group comprised of staff from the State Water Resources Control Board, Department of Water Resources, California Public Utilities Commission and the California Independent System Operator. The group is an extension of the Drought Task Force and is lead by a representative from the Governor's Office.

The Group's purpose is to develop actions that are necessary and prudent to protect California's energy supply and service reliability that could be impacted by the drought. It is tasked with:

  1. Developing tools to illustrate the impact of drought so that decision makers can better evaluate hydropower generation and electricity reliability.
  2. Monitoring hydropower generation impacts.
  3. Monitoring natural gas plants using water.
  4. Reviewing and activating emergency contingency plans for electricity shortages if needed.

Additional Steps Being Taken By the Energy Commission

There has never been a greater need to conserve water and energy. Use and conservation of water and energy are interdependent. In fact, the State Water Project—the nation's largest state-built water and power development and conveyance system—is also the largest user of electrical energy in California. Reducing water use can reduce the demand for electrical energy and vice versa. Conserving both can greatly benefit our economy and environment, especially during the drought emergency.

The Energy Commission plays a key role in helping California businesses and consumers reduce water and energy use. It is authorized to do so under the Warren-Alquist Act, which requires California to adopt water and energy efficiency standards. Over the years, the Energy Commission has:

  • Adopted appliance water consumption standards for eight key water consuming products including clothes washers, showerheads, kitchen and lavatory faucets, toilets, and urinals.
  • Adopted 2013 building standards that are expected to save 200 million gallons of water per year (equal to more than 6.5 million washing machine loads) and avoid 260,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

Accelerating New Efficiency Standards for Water Appliances

Given historic and current water conditions and a future in which climate change could profoundly impact water supplies, the Energy Commission is accelerating updates to water appliance efficiency standards. The 2012 rulemaking process set forth initial prioritizations in a three-phase approach. The Commission then used 2013 information to further refine the schedule and prioritization of phase one appliances.

The Commission is actively developing water consumption standards for faucets, toilets and urinals among other appliance standards. The Energy Commission's goal is to adopt these water saving standards by the end of the year.

The total value of resources (water, natural gas and electricity) savings to be gained from standards currently being developed is estimated to be $1.12 billion a year. New standards have the potential to:

  • Reduce water consumption by 86.6 billion gallons per year (68 billion gallons from faucets and 18.6 billion gallons from toilets and urinals)
  • Reduce peak electricity by 190 megawatt hours (MWh)
  • Save 1,660 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity per year
  • Save 223 million therms of natural gas per year

All appliance efficiency regulations must be cost-effective so that any increase in the cost of a more efficient appliance is offset by the lifetime cost of using it. Further, the program's energy and water conserving regulations will reduce greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions, improve environmental quality and enhance electricity supply reliability.

Rulemaking Schedule
Category Draft Regulations Released
Faucets, Toilets, Urinals April 2014
Air Filters, Dimming Ballasts April 2014
LED Lamps, Multifaceted Reflector Lamps May 2014
Pool Pump Motors,*Portable Electric Spas* August 2014
Computers, Monitors, Displays November 2014
Network Equipment* February 2015
Game Consoles February 2015
Commercial Clothes Dryers* February 2015
*The schedule for these products may be revised based on feedback received in response to the Energy Commission's request for additional information.

A staff report and public workshop will accompany each release of draft regulations. Staff reports will contain the detailed rationale, analysis, consideration of alternatives, and proposed regulatory language. Interested stakeholders will be provided with a public comment period to respond to the draft proposals. In addition, a public workshop will be provided as a forum to discuss the proposals in person.

Information on the proceeding, relevant documents and public comments are online at the rulemaking's webpage:

Members of the News Media:
Please contact the Media and Public Communications office at 916-654-4989.