Droughts in the American West have been a subject of concern for decades, but a recent study conducted by Stanford University reveals a disturbing consequence that has been largely overlooked: the switch to burning fossil fuels when hydropower becomes scarce. As rivers and reservoirs run dry, utilities are forced to rely on coal, oil, or natural gas to meet the increasing demand for electricity. This shift to fossil fuel-based power plants coincides with heat waves that drive up energy consumption, particularly for air conditioning. The result is not only a significant increase in carbon emissions but also methane leakage, local air pollution, and ultimately, deaths caused by poor air quality.
The economic and social costs generated by these impacts are substantial, with tens of billions of dollars being accumulated over the past two decades in 11 Western states alone. In California, for instance, the increase in fossil fuel generation during drought years between 2012 and 2016 led to over $5 billion in damages, surpassing the direct cost of transitioning from hydropower to more expensive fossil fuels. These findings expose a failure to properly account for the social and economic costs associated with climate change, underestimating both the impact and value of investments in combating it.
Lead study author Minghao Qiu emphasizes that the study uncovers a significant yet unaccounted-for cost of climate change: the impact of drought on greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and human health. The researchers estimate that the total cost of these damages caused by drought-induced fossil electricity generation in U.S. Western states between 2001 and 2021 reaches a staggering $20 billion. Carbon emissions alone account for $14 billion of this damage, followed by deaths associated with increased air pollution at $5.1 billion, and methane leakage at just under $1 billion.
The consequences of drought-induced fossil fuel generation extend beyond state borders. When Northwestern states, which typically export electricity, face hydropower shortages, neighboring regions are also impacted. To compensate for the shortage, fossil fuel power plants in California and the Southwest are activated. This interconnectedness of energy systems means that climate shocks in one area can have severe consequences for other geographic regions. It is not simply a local issue; it is a widespread problem.
While the study primarily focuses on the American West, it serves as a wakeup call for countries worldwide that heavily rely on hydropower. As climate change increases the risk of drought, these regions face an increasing threat. The study warns that in areas where high-emitting coal-fired power plants serve as a substitute for lost hydropower, the economic and health damages resulting from deteriorated air quality and greenhouse gas emissions will be even higher than in the U.S. Western states, where natural gas is often used as an alternative.
The study’s calculations of damages are based on widely accepted estimates for the costs of carbon and methane emissions, as well as the statistical value of a human life. For states heavily reliant on hydropower, such as Washington, California, and Oregon, the research indicates that drought-induced shifts in the energy supply could account for up to 40% of all greenhouse gas emissions from electricity during drought years, even with the increasing adoption of renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and battery storage. This highlights the urgent need for these states to pursue additional initiatives in order to achieve their net-zero emission goals, as more frequent droughts make it increasingly challenging for the electricity sector to fully decarbonize.
The study underscores the importance of expanding renewable energy sources and improving energy storage to minimize reliance on fossil fuels. By reducing emissions, we can limit future warming and mitigate the associated risks of drought. Addressing the impact of drought on energy generation and climate change is imperative to mitigate its adverse effects on the environment, public health, and the economy. It is time to take action and prioritize investments in sustainable, clean energy solutions to secure a better future for ourselves and future generations.