California’s three-year-old drought, now classified as “exceptional” (the most severe rating), has led to a predictable decrease in hydroelectric power production, from an average of 20% of power produced to a ten-year low of 10% for the first six months of 2014. Despite the shortfall, the state has managed to maintain an adequate supply of energy by calling on an increase in power supplied from natural gas.
Ironically, however, as drought-stricken Texas has learned, getting energy from natural gas requires a lot of water, from the high-powered jets of water used for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in order to extract the gas from the bedrock in which it is deposited to the water that must be continuously pumped to cool the equipment that converts the fuel to power. It’s a small mercy that the amount needed for natural gas is less than that needed for coal, Texas’s main fuel source, and that California is not as reliant upon coal. But natural gas, while cleaner than coal, is still a fossil fuel and is not emission-free, and the process of fracking has garnered immense opposition from researchers who point up the potential environmental hazards of the practice, such as groundwater contamination.
But with the closure of the San Onofre nuclear power plant leaving California with one fewer source of emission-free energy, natural gas is stepping in to fill the gap, and its use of ever-more-precious water has to be a consideration (although to be fair, nuclear power uses more water than any other type of energy generation). It is estimated that 85% of the growth in water demand for the United States over the next 20 years will come from the energy sector, if things proceed apace.
So what’s a drought-stricken state to do? If there’s any silver lining to drought, it’s that it comes with an ample supply of sunshine, and solar and wind power are technologies that don’t require any additional resources. Solar power can currently provide up to 14% of California’s energy supply, and wind power generation surpassed hydropower in California in February and March of this year. With clear goals to reduce emissions set by Governor Jerry Brown’s clean-air initiatives, wind, solar and other alternatives are most likely to be the answer for California’s future needs. As for Texas, even though its wind power generation is one of the largest in the world, the sector is taking a political hit from conservatives who want to see its federal assistance abolished. If drought conditions continue there, however, it might be considered money well spent.