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Estimated impacts of climate warming on California’s high-elevation hydropower


California’s hydropower system is composed of high and low elevation power plants. There are more than 150 high-elevation power plants, at elevations above 1,000 feet (300 m). Most have modest reservoir storage capacities, but supply roughly 74% of California’s in-state hydropower. The expected shift of runoff peak from spring to winter due to climate warming, resulting in snowpack reduction and increased snowmelt, might have important effects on power generation and revenues in California. The large storage capacities at low-elevation power plants provide flexibility to operations of these units under climate warming. However, with climate warming, the adaptability of the high-elevation hydropower system is in question as this system was designed to take advantage of snowpack, a natural reservoir. With so many high-elevation hydropower plants in California, estimation of climate warming effects by conventional simulation or optimization methods would be tedious and expensive. An Energy-Based Hydropower Optimization Model (EBHOM) was developed to facilitate practical climate change and other low-resolution system-wide hydropower studies, based on the historical generation data of 137 high-elevation hydropower plants for which the data were complete for 14 years. Employing recent historical hourly energy prices, the model was used to explore energy generation in California for three climate warming scenarios (dry warming, wet warming, and warming-only) over 14 years, representing a range of hydrologic conditions. The system is sensitive to the quantity and timing of inflows. While dry warming and warming-only climate changes reduce average hydropower revenues, wet warming could increase revenue. Re-operation of available storage and generation capacities help compensate for snowpack losses to some extent. Storage capacity expansion and to a lesser extent generation capacity expansion both increase revenues, although such expansions might not be cost-effective.

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