California’s hottest and driest drought in recorded history has shifted the sources of electricity with adverse economic and environmental consequences. The Pacific Institute
has just completed and released a report
that evaluates how diminished river flows have resulted in less hydroelectricity, more expensive electricity from the combustion of natural gas, and increased production of greenhouse gas emissions.
The current severe drought has many negative consequences. One of them that receives little attention is how the drought has fundamentally changed the way our electricity is produced. Under normal conditions, electricity for the state’s millions of users is produced from a blend of sources, with natural gas and hydropower being the top two. Since the drought has reduced the state’s river flows that power hundreds of hydropower stations, natural gas has become a more prominent player in the mix. This is an expensive change.
According to the Institute’s report, between October 2011 and October 2014, California’s ratepayers spent $1.4 billion more for electricity than in average years because of the drought-induced shift from hydropower to natural gas. In an average year, hydropower provides around 18 percent of the electricity needed for agriculture, industry, and homes. Comparatively, in this three-year drought period, hydropower made up less than 12 percent of total California electricity generation. The figure below (Figure 6 from the new study) shows the monthly anomalies in state hydropower generation in wet and dry years, and the severe cuts over the past three years.