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Study: California Drought Means Less Hydropower, More CO2 Pollution

Folsom Lake, California
California Department of Water Resources
Folsom Lake, California
Study: California Drought Means Less Hydropower, More CO2 Pollution
Study: California Drought Means Less Hydropower, More CO2 Pollution GUEST: Peter Gleick, president, Pacific Institute

The experts told us this year is El Niño would probably not reverse the effects of California's historic drought. It looks as if they were right. The state is still calculating the full impact and cost of the multi--year drought. Energy rate payers are picking up some of those costs. A new study by the Pacific Institute finds move electricity is more expensive. Joining me is Trent 17 and author of "the report" period Thank you for having me. I'm wondering what initially prompted your interest in looking into this? The Institute has looked for many years of consequences of extreme climatic and whether event on society, including droughts and floods. We have heard a lot the last few years on impacts on our city and agriculture in California of shortfalls of water. When we don't have the water we normally have in California, one of the constant practice is we get less hydraulic diversity generation. And we have to make up that lost energy. In California we burned more natural gas which is more expensive and a dirtier choice. How much of California's energy is generated by hydroelectric plant? In a normal year in California with the normal amount of rain or snow we get about 18 percent of electricity from hydropower. Last year was the fourth year of this on going drought and it was down to seven percent. That is a big loss of hydrogeneration. What are the alternatives? You mentioned a gas-powered energy plant. Is that the main alternative? Yes. That's right. When we don't have hydropower the marginal energy source is natural gas combustion in California. We get some power from solar, some from wind, some from nuclear, some from Hydro. When we are missing something the marginal choice is natural gas which cost more money, produces more greenhouse gases and other pollutants. Over the last for years it has cost California ratepayers to billion dollars in higher energy bills and increased pollution emissions by over 10 percent if we had had less of a drought. You mentioned that nuclear power plants did the closure of the [Indiscernible] powerplant have an effect on green gas emissions? That is a great question. We close that to-unit plant a few years ago and we had to burn more national days natural -- natural gas which we did. For the drought, the consequences has really -- that for the natural gas comes in to replace the lost hydropower. While that is good news. Will El Niño make a difference in the amount of hydroelectric generation California can have next year? We hope so . It is an El Niño year. We have been hoping that the current winter would be really wet. It's been sort of about average. We are about average at snowpack statewide. The last week has been hot and our snowpack is disappearing again. We cannot expect the current rainfall year to make up for the drought. We are in more than one year of high-end. We will need a couple of years to refill the reservoirs and our soil moisture. We don't really know how the rest of the rainy season will be. We can assume we are still in the bad drought and should be acting as though water is scarce in California. California's climate change law requires the state cut its overall omissions that two 1990 levels by the year 2020. With this reduction of hydroelectric power to be able to rely on, if the drought is ongoing could that keep the state from reaching its climate change goals? Yes. That is exactly right. It ties in well about the story you just had about the climate decision of that the Supreme Court. We know the drought has been worsened by climate change. Temperatures are rising. That puts demand on agriculture water. Now, in addition it is increasing the state's emission of greenhouse gases which will make it harder to reach the state level target to cut greenhouse gases. It is a vicious circle. Climate change gets worse and that impacts water capability that reduces our ability to cut greenhouse gases. If we do have this continuation of higher temperatures and less water to generate hydroelectric power, what are some of the long-term options for California? If there is any good news, it's the fact that in the last 5 or 10 years California is continuing to expand production of electricity from wind and solar, renewable sources. Every kilowatt hour we can get is a kilowatt hour of natural gas we do not have to burn. We need to continue to increase investment in these other renewable resources. We hope that the range -- rain will return. The other piece of the puzzle is every gallon of water that we do not need, every effort made to improve the efficiency of water use and water conservation is a gallon of water that stays in the reservoir to generate hydroelectricity. There are things to do on each side to make ourselves less vulnerable to these changes. Trent 17, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you.

A new report shows reduced hydroelectricity generation, due to the drought in California, has increased costs to electric ratepayers and increased greenhouse gas pollution.

"The four-year drought in California has had harsh economic and environmental impacts," said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and the report’s author.

Gleick said the increase in electricity costs is more than $2 billion from October 2011 to September 2015.

During that time period, the additional combustion of fossil fuels for electric generation also led to a 10 percent increase in the release of carbon dioxide from California power plants.

"In a normal water year, when we have full reservoirs, and we get the rain and snow that we expect, hydropower is probably 15 to 18 percent of our electricity supply," Gleick said. "Last year in 2015 it was down to around 7 percent."

Gleick said it's not just water and electricity users paying the price for reduced hydropower in California.

"The impacts of the California drought — which is the driest and the hottest in 120 years of instrumental records and one of the worst in history — has had widespread impacts on all water users, including farmers, industries, cities, and natural ecosystems," Gleick said. "And in fact, all California ratepayers are affected by the drought as they pay for electricity that is both dirtier and more expensive than in non-drought years."

The report does not project 2016 to show much improvement.

"As of early 2016, the drought continues: reservoir levels remain abnormally low, precipitation and especially Sierra Nevada snowpack are marginally above normal, and hydrogeneration is expected to continue to be below average until reservoirs refill," the report said.

"Thus, we expect costs to California ratepayers and to the environment will continue to mount."

"We're still in a hole, we're still in a big hole," Gleick said. "And unless we get a lot more rain and a lot more snow in the next month and a half or two months, I think we can expect to see hydropower below normal this year as well."