El Nino's U.S. West Coast Snow Boosts Hydropower Prospects

  • Pacific Northwest, California snowfall is above normal
  • Hydropower will displace natural gas: Morgan Stanley

El Nino may have wiped out winter on the U.S. East Coast, but it’s proving a boon to West Coast hydroelectric power prospects.

The weather pattern is dumping so much snow in the Pacific Northwest and California that accumulations are topping historic norms, government data show. The snowpack promises a stream of cheap hydropower flowing across the region once the spring melt begins, especially in California where supplies last year fell to the lowest level since at least 2008.

“Hydro generation is expected to exceed the last three years,” Todd Crawford, chief meteorologist for The Weather Company, in Andover, Massachusetts, said in a telephone interview. “Snowpack in almost all of the West Coast now is above normal.”

Last year snow accumulation was less than 50 percent of the norm, Morgan Stanley analysts Stefan Revielle and Adam Longson said in a report to clients late Tuesday. A return to normal conditions this summer may displace as much as 650 million cubic feet a day of natural gas that would otherwise be needed to produce electricity, they said.

The West Coast winter stands in contrast to East Coast conditions where mild weather has led to a virtual dearth of snowfall.

California’s hydroelectric generation stayed below 2,000 megawatts last summer, compared with 5,500 megawatts in 2011, said Chris DaCosta, director of the California grid for Genscape Inc., which tracks real-time power data in Boston. Hydropower is already on the rise this year, climbing 20 percent to average 1,531 in January from a year earlier, Genscape data show.

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