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California Drought Cuts Hydroelectric Generation in Half
The prolonged drought in California, now entering its fourth year, has altered the state's mix of energy generation sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). That's mixed news for those pushing for more reliance on renewables and less on fossil fuels.
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The EIA issued a report yesterday that showed that, with the state's reservoirs currently at 42 percent of their normal levels for this time of year, the ability of hydroelectric dams to produce power has been cut in half. The dams, which normally produce about 20 percent of the state's power, are now producing only 10 percent.
With hydro power production at a ten-year low, reliance on natural gas hit a ten-year high. That's not good news, since fracking for natural gas requires copious amounts of water and has stirred up opposition in the state. (While most fracking in California is for oil, it also sits on large natural gas reserves).
According to the EIA, "In California, natural gas-fired capacity is often used to help offset lower levels of generation from hydropower facilities. The chart below shows how this inverse relationship can work: when monthly hydropower generation dips under 10-year average levels, monthly natural gas generation often rises above its 10-year average in response. From January through June of 2014, natural gas generation in California was percent higher compared to the same period in 2013 and 16 percent higher compared to the January-June average from the previous 10 years."
But on the positive side, the EIA says, "Wind and solar generation are also playing an increasingly significant role in California's generation mix.
Wind-generated energy exceeded hydropower for the first time in February and March, producing 30 percent of the state's power.
While hydropower is often thought of as clean and renewable, the hydroelectric dams have been controversial among environmentalists and tribal groups for the way they impact the land and the distribution of water resources. For instance, the Shasta Dam, one of the country's largest, has stirred anger for the way it has changed the region's ecological footprint and buried tribal lands in order to provide hydroelectricity and water for agriculture in the Central Valley.
"As drought and climate change intensify, we need to focus on the best and highest use of our rivers," said Gary Wockner of the Save the Colorado River and Poudre Waterkeeper. "Wind and solar are the best ways to generate electricity, whereas hydro-electric dams destroy rivers and cause methane emissions that accelerate climate change. Our rivers and water should flow as fast and freely as possible and be used to sustainably quench the thirst of people, fish and wildlife so that all three can continue to thrive."
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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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