New Pacific Institute report reveals impacts of CA drought on hydroelectricity costs

March 17, 2015
A recent Pacific Institute report reveals that with California's drough, diminished river flows have resulted in less hydroelectricity, more expensive electricity and increased production of greenhouse gas emissions.

OAKLAND, CA, March 17, 2015 -- According to a recent report published by the Pacific Institute (PI), an independent think tank focused on water issues, California's hottest and driest drought in recorded history is shifting the sources of energy for electricity with adverse economic and environmental consequences. Further, the research revealed that diminished river flows have resulted in less hydroelectricity, more expensive electricity and increased production of greenhouse gas emissions.

Under normal conditions, electricity for millions of users across California is produced from a blend of many sources, with natural gas and hydropower serving as 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.

"This 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," said PI President Peter Gleick, author of the report. "We hope this report prompts a lively debate on how to factor in a changing climate when we plan for electricity generation."

According to PI'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 18 percent of the electricity needed for agriculture, industry and homes. Comparatively, in this three-year drought period, hydropower comprised less than 12 percent of total California electricity generation.

A longer view reveals an even more startling economic impact: Factoring in the dry years from 2007-2009, the total additional energy cost to the state's electricity users during the six years of recent drought was $2.4 billion. If the current drought persists, water flowing to drive hydroelectric turbines will continue to shrink, and expensive and polluting natural gas will become even more of a factor in the electricity production game.

This further reliance on natural gas for the state's electricity production also has environmental costs. Hydropower produces few or no air contaminants, whereas burning natural gas emits many pollutants, including climate-changing greenhouse gases. During the 2011-2014 drought period, burning more natural gas to compensate for limited hydropower led to an 8-percent increase in emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants from California power plants.

See also:

"Pacific Institute receives grant to help improve CA drought research, solution efforts"

"New USGS website offers data-driven insights on California drought"

About the Pacific Institute

The Pacific Institute is a nonpartisan research institute that works to create a healthier planet and sustainable communities. Through interdisciplinary research and partnering with stakeholders, the organization produces solutions that advance environmental protection, economic development, and social equity -- in California, nationally and internationally. For more information, visit


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