Hydropower from British Columbia not eligible as renewable in California

On January 15, 2014, the California Energy Commission (CEC) adopted a report that concluded hydropower from British Columbia (BC) is not eligible as renewable in California (CA) and recommended not revising (i.e. weakening) the Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) hydropower regulations to allow eligibility. This effectively closes the door on a terrible idea and long process that began in 2008 for California Hydropower Reform Coalition members and BC river advocates.

Back then, word spread that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company and the BC government would try to weaken CA’s renewable hydro regulations, so that PG&E could import hydro from BC to help meet RPS requirements (legislation was about to be introduced that increased the amount of renewable energy utilities were required to provide from 20 percent to 33 percent; one of the strongest renewable energy requirements in the country).

Importing hydro from BC was a terrible idea because:

1.      Many rivers and watersheds in BC would have been irreparably damaged by hydro development, including impacts from new roads and transmission lines in undeveloped areas.

2.      CA would have imported power, but exported significant environmental impacts, which would have undermined its reputation as having the strongest environmental protection regulations in the country.

3.      The CA Public Utilities Commission had concluded that the 33 percent requirement could be met without additional out-of-state power

4.      This attempted policy change was undertaken for two reasons: easing PG&E’s path to achieving 33 percent (they would have been the only CA beneficiary) and so private developers in BC could make millions of dollars (BC changed several laws: only private developers were allowed to develop power projects [instead of BC Hydro, the Crown Corporation], already weak environmental laws were further weakened, and the provincial government was allowed to override project decisions by local authorities).

In 2009, legislation was introduced by Senator Simitian primarily to increase the renewable energy requirement from 20 to 33 percent of utilities’ electricity output. Importing hydro from BC was a part of the discussion. Due to CHRC’s leadership in organizing opposition to the BC idea, Senator Simitian refused to include language in the bill to weaken RPS hydro regulations. CHRC members prompted hundreds of letters from people stating their opposition to weakening hydro regulations. As a condition of their support for the bill, however, PG&E, the night before the bill was to be heard, got language requiring CEC to conduct a study to determine if hydro from BC is RPS-eligible or should be.

The RPS bill was not approved in 2009 and again in 2010. By 2011, PG&E opposed the bill for other reasons. Senator Simitian, however, was nervous about the bills’ previous failures, so he refused to delete the BC study language or make changes for anything other than make or break issues. The bill was finally approved and CEC was required to do the study.  

As this was a low priority for CEC (it was clear politically that the Legislature did not support importing hydro from BC), the report process took more than two years to complete. In the end, however, the report included the desired conclusions: hydro from BC is not RPS-eligible and hydro regulations should not be revised.

The result is a significant victory. Many rivers and watersheds will not be damaged by hydro development because CA will not import hydro from BC as renewable energy.