Hydro Operations

PG&E owns and operates the nation’s largest investor-owned hydroelectric system, providing a safe and reliable source of clean energy for millions of customers.

The system is built along 16 river basins stretching nearly 500 miles. PG&E’s 68 powerhouses, including a pumped storage facility, have a total generating capacity of 3,896 MW and rely on nearly 100 reservoirs located primarily in the higher elevations of California’s Sierra Nevada and Southern Cascade mountain ranges.

License Agreement Milestones

PG&E’s hydroelectric system consists of 26 federally licensed projects. As required by federal and state regulatory agencies, PG&E evaluates and mitigates the projects’ impacts on natural resources.

More than half of our operating licenses have been, or will be, up for renewal between 2000 and 2012. PG&E works with stakeholders during the renewal process to assess the impacts of these projects and try to find agreement on appropriate resource management measures—such as fish and wildlife habitat protection, riverbed conservation and recreational opportunities—to include as conditions of the new licenses. We have made it a priority to work collaboratively with our stakeholders, including federal and state agencies, local community members, environmental organizations, fishing interests and agricultural landholders, throughout the license renewal process.

We continue to make progress in enhancing our license compliance performance, which we measure by tracking our compliance with key environmental requirements. Using this approach, our compliance rate was 97.9 percent for the second year in a row.

PG&E’s management of our hydroelectric operations yielded important environmental benefits in 2011:

Environmental Stewardship in Our Hydroelectric Operations—2011
Miles of stream monitored for environmental condition1 438
Acres of bird nesting territories monitored2 5,875
Acres monitored and/or treated for noxious weed control 1,960
Cubic yards of gravel added to streams to enhance fish spawning habitat 203
Acres monitored for use by special-status species3 2,433

1 This measure refers to miles of stream monitored for its environmental condition, such as water quality/flow, sediment management, habitat quality, fish populations and invasive species.

2 Includes monitoring of Bald Eagle and other nesting territories at PG&E hydroelectric projects.

3 Special status species are those that are listed under the federal or state Endangered Species Acts or as a sensitive species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Monitoring studies are required under various hydroelectric licenses.

We achieved many important milestones in our license agreements in 2011:

  • As part of implementing the 36-year operating license for the Pit 3, 4 and 5 hydroelectric project, PG&E completed upgrades to new instream release facilities at the project’s dams in 2011. These facilities allow PG&E to release higher minimum in-stream flows, enhancing habitat for fish, frogs and other species. Moving forward, PG&E will evaluate these enhancements with regulatory agencies and other stakeholders, while also continuing to monitor species such as bald eagles and Northern spotted owls to ensure local populations remain healthy. Additionally, our work toward improving recreational facilities in the region will continue in 2012.
  • We filed a license application for the existing Drum-Spaulding hydroelectric project on the Yuba and Bear rivers, PG&E’s most complex conventional hydroelectric project. We proposed to continue operating the project’s 12 powerhouses, 10 of which total about 86 MW of capacity and qualify as renewable resources. Our application reflected collaborative discussions with multiple stakeholders and addressed environmental, cultural resource and recreation issues. It proposed measures to protect, mitigate and enhance natural resources and recreation opportunities associated with the project area while providing significant public water supply benefits.
  • PG&E is making major recreation improvements to Pinecrest Lake, a popular destination for fishing, swimming and boating.

  • We continued to implement a new 38-year license for the 87.9 MW Spring Gap-Stanislaus hydroelectric project, located on the Stanislaus River in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. In 2011, we began a multi-year effort to make major recreation improvements to Pinecrest Lake, a key reservoir for the system and a popular destination for fishing, swimming and boating. Working with the Stanislaus National Forest, we are upgrading the lake’s facilities to reduce water consumption and energy use, enhance recreation, meet accessibility needs and improve traffic and parking conditions. View our plans and progress to date.

Restoring Salmon and Steelhead Habitat

PG&E’s environmental commitment includes working to manage our hydro facilities in a manner that restores and enhances habitat for fish and other wildlife. This includes several projects where we are actively working to restore vital streambed habitat for steelhead and salmon, which live their adult lives in the sea and migrate—sometimes hundreds of miles—upstream to spawn.

Battle Creek Salmon and Steelhead Restoration Project

In Tehama County near Mount Lassen, we continue to work with government agencies and other groups to restore historic salmon runs along Battle Creek in one of the country’s largest cold water fish restoration efforts. We have removed or will remove five of our eight diversion dams in the area, and we are retrofitting the remaining three with fish screens and ladders to allow spawning fish to travel upstream. Doing so will allow winter- and spring-run salmon to pass through 48 miles of streams and habitat.

At the end of 2011, wildlife officials reported seeing more than four times the number of Chinook salmon nests normally seen upstream in North Fork Battle Creek. Partners in the restoration project note that the growing number of fish signifies that the project goal of increasing populations of anadromous fish—which begin life in freshwater creeks and live part of their lives in the ocean—is already under way, even while project construction continues.

Butte Creek

In Butte County, PG&E’s DeSabla-Centerville hydroelectric project provides a unique benefit to endangered Chinook salmon and steelhead. A key feature of this ongoing project is an 8-mile diversion canal that brings colder water from the nearby West Branch of the Feather River to Butte Creek, encouraging fish to migrate to Butte Creek. Together with efforts to improve water quality, install fish screens and remove barriers to fish migration, this project has successfully restored a significant population of salmon and steelhead to the area.

Investing in Our Infrastructure

We continue to invest in our hydroelectric infrastructure to ensure the safety and reliability of the system, as well as the safety of our employees and the public. In 2011, we made major investments in several projects.

Helms Pumped Storage Facility

Our Helms pumped storage facility, high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains east of Fresno, is our largest and most unique hydroelectric project, able to power 900,000 California homes. The facility is located deep underground between two reservoirs. It uses three turbine generators to pump water uphill when demand for electricity is low; then, when demand is high, the water is released downhill to regenerate electricity.

When a similar facility in Austria experienced a major mechanical failure, PG&E proactively inspected the Helms facility to prevent such a breakdown. This included using a high-tech, 3-D technology scanner to accurately assess the system’s rotors. The quick response by PG&E and Helms workers identified problems early and enabled repairs to be made that avoided damage to the plant. The early detection and repair also created a safe working environment for our employees and prevented serious operational breakdowns that would have resulted in extended outages and costly repairs. Repairs were completed in 2012.

Bear River Canal

PG&E crews work to repair damage to the canal.

Last year, a landslide in a remote canyon in Placer County significantly damaged PG&E’s Bear River Canal, halting water flow to the Placer County Water Agency and the Nevada Irrigation District, which serve local homes, businesses, farms and ranches.

PG&E crews worked around the clock with the local water agencies to restore the canal as safely and quickly as possible. We began with a temporary solution to deliver water to the tens of thousands of local residents whose water supply had been disrupted. Within weeks, the company had bypassed the canal to reestablish water flow. PG&E then completed permanent repairs to the canal, as well as environmental restoration of the area affected by the landslide. This included replanting vegetation that was washed away during the break or removed during the construction process.

Crane Valley Dam

In Madera County, the Crane Valley Dam at Bass Lake continues to undergo major upgrades to meet tightened seismic requirements and increase public safety. The dam, which was built between 1902 and 1911, will be 50 feet wider at its base by the time the upgrades are completed in 2013. In the meantime, PG&E is working closely with the local community to ensure that the many recreational opportunities on Bass Lake are maintained during the retrofitting process. PG&E is also taking measures to ensure public safety during the process and is elevating community outreach through community meetings and a comprehensive website.