Out West student blog

Need storage? Oroville Dam might be the solution!

Mo going out for a weekday hike after her work and appreciating the Californian nature. Image credit: Mo Sodwatana

Mo Sodwatana PhD '25
Hometown: Bangkok, Thailand
Energy Resources Engineering
Intern, Department of Water Resources

One of the main current projects at the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Power and Risk Office, of which I am a part, is the Flexible Resources Study. The aim of the study is to assess improvements and strategies that add sustainable operational flexibilities to the State Water Project (SWP) to meet future power market opportunities and to help California achieve its climate and energy goals. 

My focus for the Flexible Resources Study is on the pumped hydro storage study at Oroville Dam. Oroville Dam has the capability to do pumped storage; however, in recent years the operation has been put on pause. Reinstating pumped storage can be very beneficial as the system can provide additional energy generation as well as storage capacity. For my project, I create pumping and generating schedules for Oroville Dam to meet the water demands from SWP while also optimizing for locational market prices (LMP) using a model which was created by a previous intern. LMP is the cost to buy and sell power at different locations within a wholesale electricity market. Given the dependency of pumped hydro storage at Oroville on the availability of the water, the system’s operations can vary drastically by season and by year. So, I look at the system’s operations over a range of climate years, from drier years with low water levels to wetter years with high water levels. From these schedules, I can evaluate the revenue savings and carbon emissions that were offset from the use of pumped hydro storage and assess the impacts of climate variation on these aspects.

Aerial view of Oroville Dam, located just north of Sacramento. Image credit: Google Earth

Coming into this internship, I had very little knowledge of the policies and regulations that revolve around pumped hydro storage. The water temperature requirements downstream of the dam, the charge for use of transmission lines, the number of water deliveries Oroville is required to meet--these factors and more are intertwined when considering pumped hydro storage. I’ve learned a lot from this work and I’m excited to apply my knowledge to my future career.

From a broader perspective, this project with DWR has demonstrated to me the importance of resource planning and operational flexibility as we move into more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change. Hydroelectricity provides as much as 15% of California’s electricity, but because of the changing climate, hydropower generation has dropped in recent years. Just recently, the hydroelectric plant at Oroville Dam was shut down for the first time due to historically low water levels. 

My internship with DWR has been an extremely rewarding experience so far. The projects that I’ve taken on have opened my eyes to the complexities behind renewable energy integration and the transition towards a cleaner grid and, despite the challenges ahead, I’m optimistic for what’s to come.

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