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The Drought Means More Pollution and Higher Bills

A new report from the Pacific Institute has tallied how four years of drought has impacted electricity prices and pollution from the electricity sector. Reduced flows of surface water has meant less hydropower and more natural gas, which is not good for the wallet or the environment.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Water and energy are interconnected and California’s drought is providing another reminder of that fact. Last week the Pacific Institute released a report that calculated the impact of four years of drought on hydropower in California.

“When we don’t get surface water, we don’t get hydropower,” said Peter Gleick, author of the report and president of the Pacific Institute. “When we don’t get hydropower we have to burn more natural gas, when we burn more natural gas it costs more money and there are more pollutants emitted.”

The report found that California ratepayers had to cough up an additional $2 billion in electricity costs over the last four years of drought to pay for more expensive natural gas that had to be stepped up to fill in for decreased hydropower.

Due to decreased surface water flows from limited rain and snowpack, hydropower declined during the drought and most substantially in 2015. In a normal hydrologic year, says Gleick, California gets about 18 percent of its electricity from hydropower, second only to natural gas. By 2015 that number had fallen as low at 7 percent. And Californians paid the price for it.

“The way it appears is that it’s an incremental cost on all our electric bills, we paid more for electricity than we would otherwise because those costs are passed on directly to ratepayers over time,” said Gleick.

There is also an environmental price. Hydroelectricity is one of the cleanest sources of energy and adding more natural gas means greater emissions of pollutants, including nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, sulfur oxides, particulates, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, the report found.

An additional 23 million tons of carbon dioxide came from California power plants in the last four years as a result of decreased hydropower – a 10 percent increase in CO2 emissions from the electricity-generating sector.

“One of the complications is that the drought has made it harder to meet the greenhouse gas targets that the governor has set,” said Gleick.

There are other reasons to be concerned, as well. “A linear trend fitted to the data shows that hydroelectricity generation has been declining over the past 15 years, largely due to drought conditions,” the report states.

“If you look at the last 15 years the trend is definitely down,” says Gleick. “I think an unresolved question is whether this is a long-term trend that is going to continue.” Is drought the “new normal” for California, as many have suggested?

A report published February 4 in Geophysical Research Letters found that droughts in the Southwest are likely to become more common as bigger storms have been occurring less frequently.

There are also other impacts that drought may have on energy. One of the consequences of the drought has been a massive increase in groundwater pumping to make up for a lack of surface water. Nowhere has this been more acutely felt than in the San Joaquin Valley, where overdrafting of aquifers has caused concern about falling groundwater levels, subsidence and consequences for farmers.

But, Gleick says, there is one major area that no one has studied yet and that’s how much energy is being used to pump that groundwater, which is increasingly being pumped from deeper depths.

“It is potentially very significant,” he said, but “we don’t have data on the volume of groundwater that’s actually been pumped or the depth from which it has been pumped and we’d need both of those to calculate the true energy cost of this additional energy cost.”

There are of course no easy fixes for increasing hydropower since any spot where you could put a hydroelectric dam already has one. But Gleick says there is still a lot we can do with water conservation and efficiency, wastewater treatment and reuse and stormwater capture.

“More effort is going into those three areas,” he says. “But I would argue not enough.”

Top image: The 602ft (183m) concrete Shasta Dam on Shasta Lake, California, is one of the larger hydropower dams in the state. A new report found that hydropower has been reduced during the four-year drought in California. (Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press)

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