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Implications of the California Drought on Energy Use and Climate Concerns

huard-davidCalifornia’s drought is now in its fourth year, and state leaders are faced with making unprecedented decisions further restricting water use. The brown lawns and dying trees are all too obvious and painful examples of the drought’s impact. However, somewhat lost in the public discussion, but of critical importance, is the impact of the drought on the energy sector, including power use, transmission and supply, in addition to several other secondary impacts such as diminished air quality and increased commodity prices.

The full impact of this four-year drought is still unknown and will remain so until further studies can be conducted. However, certain interim effects are inevitable in drought years and should be recognized and discussed as state agencies look to address the drought’s implications.

Decrease in Hydroelectric Power

California and much of the West rely on hydroelectric power as an inexpensive and usually plentiful supply of on-demand clean energy. However, this energy supply is contingent on a strong snow pack, the traditional source of hydroelectric power. No rain has meant no snow and no spring run-off for reservoir inventory. The current snow pack is at a 500-year low. When such power is absent for any reason — be it drought or environmental restrictions — utilities have historically turned to natural gas or even coal-fired generation to make up for the shortfall. These alternative power supplies come at greater economic and environmental costs for the state.

Air Quality Degradation and Safety Risks

In addition, the dry climate and lack of rain have resulted in numerous catastrophic wildfires in the state. These fires seriously threaten transmission and other power assets, but also add significant new and unanticipated pollution into the air. This air pollution is cumulative to the increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that result from California’s reliance on fossil-fuel resources to replace the diminished supply from hydroelectric resources.

Increased Reliance on Groundwater Pumping

A major use of power in California is for the movement of water through agricultural water projects and the use of pumps for irrigation of crops. Agricultural energy use shifts as more farmers are forced to pump their own groundwater since surface supplies are increasingly limited. Electricity consumption for groundwater pumping is significant, and the drought continues to increase the total amount of groundwater pumped and the depth from which the water is withdrawn, thereby increasing total electricity demand. So while the source of emissions may shift with changes in farming practice, total emissions may nonetheless increase and may also cause increased food prices due to higher cost of production and potential scarcity.

David Huard
David Huard is co-chair of the Energy, Environment & Natural Resources practice at law firm Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, practicing in the Los Angeles and San Francisco offices. He is also the partner responsible for the firm’s Climate Change Solutions group and the Solar and Renewables Project Development team. He can be reached at (415) 291-7430 or dhuard@manatt.com.
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