Drought-Stricken States Are Paying More for Power, but There May Be a Clean Energy Solution

Hydropower shortfalls have hiked rates—and carbon pollution—in California and other Western states.

Because of the extreme drought, recycled water is being used to water these plants in Burbank, California. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Mar 20, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

California is in its fourth year of one of the hottest and driest droughts in 12 centuries, with no end in sight.

Now it’s emerged that along with browned farm fields, lost jobs, and growing restrictions on everyday water consumption, the drought has weakened the fight to curb climate change and lightened the pocketbooks of ratepayers across the moisture-starved West.

That’s because shrinking river flows have led to shortfalls in energy generated by hydropower dams, typically among the cheapest, least-polluting energy sources.

To compensate, California has increased use of natural gas–fired power, and that has cost Californians an additional $1.4 billion over the past three years, according to a new report from the Pacific Institute, a water-focused think tank.

As state residents coughed up more money for electricity, Pacific Institute found, they also inhaled 8 percent more carbon dioxide emissions than before the drought. Carbon dioxide created by burning fossil fuels is the leading driver of global warming.

“One of the underappreciated impacts of the drought is the impact on our energy system,” said Peter Gleick, a cofounder of the Pacific Institute and author of the report.

“In the long run, if droughts were to become more frequent and more severe due to climate change, this could be an ongoing issue,” he said. “In the short run, this means higher electricity rates for all of us.”

Beyond California, hydropower supplies in central Texas, Colorado, Nevada, and Arizona have also been hurt by the relentless drought, according to news reports, leading to increased reliance on natural gas.

But “there may be a silver lining behind the current circumstances because of the Energy Imbalance Market,” said Albert Lundeen of the California Energy Commission. “It’s an effort by the Western states to manage the region as a market instead of individual states, so greater use of solar energy may be possible.”

California’s solar and wind power capacity doubled in recent years, and a newly established regional connectivity plan may help swap these renewables for hydropower beyond state lines.

If it works, those equally drought-stricken neighboring states will be able to tap into Southern California’s ever-abundant sunshine.

How much more Californians pay for power depends on where they live. Northern California has more hydroelectric plants than ultradry Southern California, according to state records. The CEC said that energy prices will depend upon how well utilities have prepared for such circumstances with a diversified mix of power sources.

In 2011, a wet year, California got about 18 percent of its power from hydro. Last year it was down to about 12 percent. Both years were different from the 1950s, when, according to state energy records, hydropower supplied nearly 60 percent of California’s energy needs.

“We’ve run out of the ability to expand our hydro system, and even if we had, there’s not that much water to tap,” Gleick said. “We have to start planning for less hydroelectric power in the future.”

“If we could build more solar and wind systems, we’d be less vulnerable to droughts,” he said. “Every kilowatt-hour of wind and solar we have is a kilowatt-hour of natural gas that we don’t have to burn.”