The loss of hydropower added 121 million metric tons of carbon emissions over 20 years, about the same as putting 1.3 million more cars on the roads.

For example, Lake Shasta, California’s largest dam and reservoir that feeds the Sacramento River, has been at record low levels since July 2015.


In the early 20th century, as the United States developed the West, the federal government built hundreds of hydroelectric dams on the region’s major rivers.

These dams destroyed river ecosystems and inundated indigenous lands, providing a cheap and abundant source of “renewable” energy (sorry non-renewable your pumps and motors run on fossil energy) for tens of millions of people.

Today, hydropower supplies about a quarter of the region’s energy needs.






The hydroelectric fleet in the west has taken a beating in the last 20 years, as a series of devastating droughts have hit the area.

When major rivers dry up, less water flows through the turbines of hydroelectric dams, and as a result, the dams produce less electricity. At the same time, the heat waves that often accompany dry spells cause higher energy demands as people turn on their air conditioners more frequently.






This is bad news for grid operators, who have to find an alternative source of electricity just as dams are falling short.

This decline in hydropower leads to a significant increase in fossil fuel emissions, according to a new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a leading scientific journal.


After looking at power generation in the West between 2001 and 2021, the study authors found that coal and gas plants increased their activity during the dry months to replace lost hydropower, leading to more carbon emissions and more pollution. of local air.

While that finding was expected, the scale of the increase in fossil fuel emissions surprised the researchers.


“The effect on the energy mix is actually quite large.”






In all, the decline in hydropower caused an additional 121 million metric tons of carbon emissions between 2001 and 2021, about the same as if an additional 1.3 million cars had been on the road during the same period.

The size of the change varied from grid to grid and power plant to power plant, but it was considerable everywhere.


Fossil fuel emissions increased 11 percent in the Northwest during the driest months and 30 percent in California. In some plants, generation jumped up to 65% above normal levels during dry spells.



During drier years, this increase had staggering consequences for the climate: in 2001, for example, a decline in hydroelectric power caused fossil power plants in the West to emit 27 million tons more carbon dioxide than they they would have emitted otherwise, or about 10 percent of their total emissions that year.






An irrigation canal carries water from the Colorado River to care for a farm that grows lettuce and broccoli near Yuma, Arizona.

At last, the states reach an agreement on the Colorado River: pay farmers not to farm.

Because coal and natural gas tend to be more expensive to produce than hydropower, the droughts likely led to higher energy costs for customers in the West.


But the study also argues that declines in hydroelectric power generation have had huge environmental and public health costs, to the tune of more than $20 billion so far this century.

Increased carbon emissions brought on by the drought not only caused future warming that will lead to more climate disasters, but air pollution around fossil fuel plants also made nearby residents sick, leading to higher costs of public health later.


In 2001, for example, California’s natural gas plants ramped up to offset a drought-induced decline in hydroelectric power across the region, leading to a more than 40 percent increase in releases of toxic chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitric oxide.






These negative health effects did not always occur in the same places where a drought occurred. When the hydroelectric fleet in a state like Washington faltered, grid operators imported electricity from other states, transporting electrons through long transmission cables that traverse the region.

This replacement power came from coal plants in Montana and gas plants in California, with people close to those distant facilities shouldering the health costs as those plants burned more fossil fuels.

The study found that more than half of the increase in fossil fuel generation between 2001 and 2021 occurred in states that were not experiencing drought.


“A weather shock in one place can really cause damage in faraway places, because the power grid is so connected.”






In an interesting twist, a study found that even rapid renewable construction might not fix the problem of increased pollution during times of drought.

Western states are racing to build more solar and wind power, and the Biden administration is pushing to build more of these facilities on the region’s abundant public lands.







Fossil fuel plants will still provide backup power when other sources like hydroelectric power fall short, as they can ramp up on short notice, unlike renewable sources that rely on the amount of sun and wind available.

To reduce fossil fuel emissions during dry spells, states and the federal government must work to develop better storage options, such as improved batteries, to conserve the extra power produced by renewables.





“Fossil generators are being looked at that increase their generation, while there is an increase in demand due to a heat wave or a decrease in supply due to drought.”

This causes a double aggravation of the situation, driving records faster.


“If there is a drought in the future, will it still be the fossil fuel power plants that ramp up their generation to fill that electricity gap?”



This would be a throwback!