Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
With little water in the state's reservoirs, hydroelectricity is losing ground to natural gas—and there's a big price to pay.
Talk of the devastating effects of California's drought usually centers on agriculture, which lost $2.2 billion last year as a result of the historic water shortage.
But the drought has also reshuffled the state's mix of energy sources, and the consequences aren't pretty, according to a new report from the Pacific Institute.
In a normal year, California derives about 18 percent of its energy from hydroelectric dams on the state's rivers and reservoirs. But the energy output of these dams is dependent on how much water is available, and right now, those levels are shrinking unabated. Which means that since 2011, hydro-power's share of the state's energy pie has dropped by about a third. And to fill the gap, California's been relying on pricier and more environmentally harmful natural gas, which rose from 45 percent of the energy mix in 2011 to 61 percent in 2013.
Hydro-power is much cheaper than other electricity sources, so losing it has meant a direct increase in costs to Californians. Between October 2011 and October 2014, the Institute found the state's energy ratepayers spent $1.4 billion more for electricity than they did in average years.
And though natural gas is touted as clean and green compared to coal, it's filthy compared to hydro. Burning more natural gas at California power plants has meant an eight percent jump in CO2 emissions and other nasty pollutants between 2011 and 2014.
Here, truly, is a vicious cycle: Californians haven't cut back on energy consumption, and the drought is predicted to stretch on. Natural gas consumption is likely to continue to creep upwards, and pump out more greenhouse gases—which, as Chris Clarke at KCET points out, amplifies the threat of extended droughts in the future.