California’s drought led to less hydropower and more carbon emissions

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FILE - In this Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014 file photo, houseboats sit in the drought lowered waters of Oroville Lake, near Oroville, Calif. California voters overwhelmingly see the state's ongoing water shortage as a serious problem. A Field Poll released Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015 says 94 percent consider the shortage serious, and of those 68 percent find it extremely serious. California is entering its fourth year of drought with lower than normal rain and snow falling on the state that leads the nation in agriculture production. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

 

Climate change intensified California’s current drought, and the drought may be intensifying climate change. A new report by the Pacific Institute finds that the state’s energy portfolio has continued to shift away from hydropower and toward dirtier sources of electricity (CityLab covered its 2015 report on the same subject). That’s led to a 10 percent uptick in carbon emissions from California’s power plants, and an extra $2 billion for ratepayers.

california-electricity

 

Between 1983 and 2013, hydropower accounted for an average 18 percent of California’s total electricity production. It has never been a perfect energy source: Environmentalists object to characterizations of it as “renewable,” because of the negative impact on river ecosystems that large dams invariably have. But in terms of its emissions, “hydro” is clean as a whistle, as it doesn’t burn fuel to produce energy as does, for example, natural gas. It’s also considerably cheaper than other forms of energy.

But with the recent drought’s diminishment of river flows and reservoir capacity, the share of hydropower’s electricity production in California has dropped significantly. Between 2011 and 2015, it provided just 10.5 percent of the state’s total electricity. In 2015, a year of record lows for California water, hydropower was particularly scant, accounting for less than 7 percent of total electricity.

How has the state taken up the slack in electricity? Mostly, by burning more natural gas. Natural gas has always accounted for the lion’s share of California’s energy production, and power plants have long been one of its heaviest polluters of nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulates, and carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas chiefly responsible for climate change.

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