Out West student blog

The Importance of Power Projects to California’s Water Agency

Barrett at work. (Photo: Tanvi Gambhir)

By Barrett Travis
Civil & Environmental Engineering (Env. Fluid Mechanics), 2018
Energy Intern
California Department of Water Resources

At some point you may have driven from Northern to Southern California and noticed the California Aqueduct alongside Interstate 5, the San Luis Reservoir east of Gilroy, or Pyramid Lake in the Tehachapi mountain pass north of Los Angeles. You have gotten a glimpse of the state’s important infrastructure delivering water to those who need it, known as the State Water Project (SWP). What you may not think about as you pass these aqueducts and reservoirs is that this impressive infrastructure cannot deliver water to your local water suppliers without energy, and quite a lot of it.

What you may not think about as you pass these aqueducts and reservoirs is that this impressive infrastructure cannot deliver water to your local water suppliers without energy, and quite a lot of it.

I am working for the California Department of Water Resources in the Power and Risk Office, the office that works on securing electric power for the energy-intensive activity of moving water through the state via the SWP. The SWP is the system of dams, hydroelectric generators, pumps, aqueducts and natural channels that helps distribute water to areas of the state that need it. It stretches from Lake Oroville in the north to the Los Angeles area in the south, delivering water to various urban and agricultural users in between.

My role is to help model the feasibility of certain proposed hydropower projects, which involves taking into consideration hydrologic scenarios, energy market prices, operation and maintenance costs and other factors over a 20- to 30-year+ project lifetime. These potential projects are extensions or retrofits of existing dams or powerplants that will align with the DWR’s commitment to water delivery and ecological protection. Other priorities for new projects include increasing renewable energy generation and using pumped water storage to help balance California’s electric grid by generating power at times of high electricity demand.

To contribute to the analysis of generation or pump-generation projects, I am quickly learning things like: how the power grid managed by California Independent System Operator (CAISO) operates; how to optimize the size of a turbine in a powerplant; how DWR uses historical data to forecast probabilities of future hydrologic conditions; and how to use finance and optimization tools to determine the feasibility and risk of a project. Doing engineering work with the Department of Water Resources on the State Water Project means needing to know about a breadth of topics spanning electrical, mechanical, civil and environmental engineering disciplines, along with economics and financial risk. I earned my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and my M.S. in environmental fluid mechanics, and it is exciting to be able to apply both of those degrees to the project I am working on now. The stakes are high because projects can cost hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to implement, but they matter because the water the SWP delivers ends up in the taps of 25 million Californians and helps drive perhaps America’s most important agricultural region.

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