When drought-affected rivers and reservoirs receded across the American West, hydropower dried up and utilities fired up hundreds of power plants that burn coal, oil, or natural gas to keep up with demand for electricity. The timing could not be worse, as the accompanying heat waves drive up energy use, mostly in air conditioners.
A new Stanford University study found that these overlooked consequences of drought can increase carbon emissions, methane leakage, and local air pollution and deaths due to poor air quality.
Together, the social and economic costs of these effects cost 11 Western states tens of billions of dollars over the past two decades, according to the study, published on July 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In California alone, drought-induced increases in fossil generation between 2012 and 2016 led to more than $5 billion in damages, two and a half times the direct economic costs of switching from cheap hydropower to expensive fossil fuels. .
Since climate change is making droughts in the American West more frequent and severe, the results show that the failure to account for these effects has led governments to lower social and economic costs globally. warming-and the value of investments to combat it.
“Our research suggests that the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and human health may represent a large and unaccounted for cost of climate change,” said the author of the study Minghao Qiu, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and Stanford Center for Innovation in Global Health.
Not a local story
Qiu and co-authors estimated the total health and economic damage from fossil power generation caused by drought between 2001 and 2021 in the Western US states amounted to $20 billion, with the cost of emissions of carbon accounted for the lion’s share of that damage at $14 billion. Deaths related to increased air pollution cost $5.1 billion and methane leaks cost less than $1 billion in damages.
Like many climate impacts, these damages often bleed across borders. If hydropower goes down in Northwestern states that typically export electricity to regional neighbors, for example, communities in California and the Southwest will feel the effects as fossil fuel power plants burn to fill the cal- the.
“This is not a local story. A climate shock in one place can have serious consequences for a completely different geographic area due to the interconnected nature of many energy systems,” said Qiu, who worked with the study’s senior author Marshall Burke as part of Stanford’s Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab.
While the study focused on the American West, the researchers emphasized that many countries that rely on hydropower around the world face a greater risk of drought due to climate change. In areas where high-emitting coal-fired power plants are the most likely replacement for lost hydropower, the authors write that the economic and health damage from deteriorating air quality and greenhouse gas emissions higher than in the Western states of the US, which return more often. of natural gas.
“Our findings have implications for many other parts of the world that rely on hydropower but may face increased drought,” said Burke, an associate professor of global environmental policy. in social sciences at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. “In these regions, the interaction of drought with the energy system can have a series of negative effects on emissions and health.”
More renewable energy is needed
The authors calculated the damages based on widely accepted estimates for the costs of carbon and methane emissions, and the statistical value of human life as regulators calculated them, as well as the best available which estimates how much methane leaks into the atmosphere during the production, processing, and transportation of oil and gas (2.3% per unit of gas consumed).
In states that rely heavily on hydropower for electricity generation, such as Washington, California, and Oregon, global warming emissions caused by changes in energy supply due to drought could cause up to 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions from electricity in the future. drought years, research shows, even as more solar, wind, and battery storage come online. Research suggests that frequent droughts will make it more challenging for the electricity sector to fully decarbonize and that hydro-reliant states will need to pursue additional initiatives to meet net- zero emissions.
That’s because when electricity demand increases, utilities often turn to fossil fuels to temporarily increase supply. In the coming decades, even if renewable energy and energy storage make up more than the total average demand for electricity in the American West, fossil fuel-based power plants are expected to remain which is the dominant source of energy for marginal energy needs.
“If we want to solve this issue, we need more expansion of renewable energy along with better energy storage, so we don’t have to tap fossil fuels anymore,” he said. said Qiu. “Finally, to limit future warming and the risks of drought that come with it, we must reduce our emissions.”
Minghao Qiu et al, Effects of drought on electricity system, emissions, and air quality in the western United States, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2023). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2300395120
Provided by Stanford University
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