Where Does Butte County's Power Come From, And How Much Comes From Renewable Sources?

Jan 16, 2018

“My name is Nick and I’m from Chico. My question is, where does the power in Butte come from and how much of it comes from renewable sources?”

Like Nick, I also wondered where our energy comes from. When I run my washing machine, turn on the heater, or switch on the lights, it all seems to work like magic. But as miraculous as it all is, it’s of course not magic. The energy we use comes from a lot of different sources. For example, in the North State we have many dams that generate a form of energy called hydroelectric power. There are other ways to generate power too, like burning coal, oil or natural gas. You can even use heat from the magma beneath earth’s surface, which is called geothermal energy. 

Since You Asked is a series that answers your questions about the North State. Submit your question by calling 530-433-4887 or emailing nsprsinceyouasked@gmail.com.

What kind of energy we use matters a great deal. According to The U.S. Global Change Research Program, the climate is warming predominantly because we continue to  burn fossil fuels, which release greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. These atmospheric changes are contributing to severe weather events worldwide, such as flooding, drought and heat waves, but there are ways of producing energy that are less impactful.

Some of these methods are considered renewable energy, meaning the resource is unlimited. Small hydroelectric power plants and solar, wind, and geothermal energy are all considered renewable, because they’re naturally replenishable. In California, large hydroelectric power plants, like the Hyatt Power Plant at the Oroville Dam, are not considered renewable because of the environmental impact big dams have on natural river ecosystems. Governor Jerry Brown set a goal of deriving 50 percent of California’s energy from renewable sources by 2030. Currently, that number is at about a quarter.

How your power is generated depends on where you live and what utility company covers your area. Some areas in our region like the cities of Redding, Gridley and Biggs, as well as Trinity County and parts of Lassen and Plumas counties are served by municipal utility companies.

Credit U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Most people in Butte County are served by Pacific Gas and Electric Company. They cover a large swath of California, from Santa Barbara all the way up to the southern border of Siskiyou County. Paul Moreno is the representative of PG&E’s North Valley Division, which spans from the Yuba-Sutter area up to the City of Shasta Lake.

“We can’t specify per county what the energy mix is, but we do know that systemwide, because our grid is interconnected, about 70 percent of power that we provide to our customers comes from carbon-free sources,” Moreno said.

Systemwide means for their entire coverage area, which again, extends as far south as Santa Barbara. PG&E’s carbon-free sources include, hydro, wind, solar, geothermal and nuclear. Nearly all of this energy is generated here in California. Seventeen percent of PG&E’s power however comes from burning natural gas, which is neither renewable nor carbon-free. It emits CO2  into the atmosphere. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, CO2 is the largest greenhouse gas contributor to climate change.

PG&E's 2016 power mix
Credit Pacific Gas and Electric

Again, not everyone in Butte County is served by PG&E. Both the cities of Biggs and Gridley run their own municipal electric utility companies. Dave Dockham is the assistant general manager at Northern California Power Agency. It’s a collective of utilities serving Biggs and Gridley. According to the agency’s 2018 power forecast that Dockham provided us, Biggs will get most of its energy from hydropower this year. Gridley is more or less split 50-50 between hydropower and natural gas, with some amount coming from other sources.

Both Moreno and Dockham said their companies are making it a priority to increase the amount of renewable energy that they use. You can also help by conserving energy in your household. The U.S. Department of Energy recommends that you purchase energy efficient light bulbs and turn off your electronics when they are not in use. They also have a number of other recommendations on their website.

Utility companies in California are required to publish where they get their energy from every year. These documents are called power content labels.
Credit California Energy Commission

If you live outside of Butte county and want to learn where your electricity comes from, use the map below to learn which utility company serves your area. Then follow this link to view that company’s 2016 power breakdown.