Droughts boost emissions as hydropower dries up

From Eurekalert

Public Release: 21-Dec-2018

Droughts boost emissions as hydropower dries up

Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences

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Caption This photo is an aerial view of Folsom Dam and Lake in Sacramento County shows low water levels in January 2014. Credit Paul Hames/California Department of Water Resources

When hydropower runs low in a drought, western states tend to ramp up power generation – and emissions – from fossil fuels. According to a new study from Stanford University, droughts caused about 10 percent of the average annual carbon dioxide emissions from power generation in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington between 2001 and 2015.

“Water is used in electricity generation, both directly for hydropower and indirectly for cooling in thermoelectric power plants,” said climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh, the Kara J. Foundation professor in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth) and senior author of the study. “We find that in a number of western states where hydropower plays a key role in the clean energy portfolio, droughts cause an increase in emissions as natural gas or coal-fired power plants are brought online to pick up the slack when water for hydropower comes up short.”

The study, published Dec. 21 in Environmental Research Letters, shows emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides – air pollutants that can irritate lungs and contribute to acid rain and smog – also increased in some states as a result of droughts. Some of the largest increases in sulfur dioxide took place in Colorado, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. The largest increases in nitrogen oxides occurred in California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Challenges to going carbon-free

In total, the researchers found drought-induced shifts in energy sources led to an additional 100 million tons of carbon dioxide across 11 western states between 2001 and 2015. That’s like adding 1.4 million vehicles per year to the region’s roadways. The power sector in California, which has a mandate to go carbon-free by 2045, contributed around 51 million tons to the total. Washington, where the legislature is expected in January 2019 to consider a proposal to eliminate fossil fuels from electricity generation by 2045, contributed nearly 22 million tons.

“For California, Oregon and Washington, which generate a lot of hydropower, the drought-induced increases in carbon dioxide emissions represent substantial fractions of their Clean Power Plan targets,” said postdoctoral researcher Julio Herrera-Estrada, lead author of the study. Enacted in 2015, the Clean Power Plan established nationwide limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. The policy has been rolled back under the Trump administration, but according to Herrera-Estrada, it remains a valuable benchmark for targets that states or the federal government may eventually set for the electricity sector.

Western states in recent years have suffered the kind of intense droughts that scientists expect to become more common in many regions around the world as global warming continues. The new research suggests that failure to prepare for the emissions impact of these droughts could make achieving climate and air quality goals more difficult.

“To have reliable and clean electricity, you have to make sure you have an energy portfolio that’s diverse, such that low-emissions electricity sources are able to kick in during a drought when hydropower cannot fully operate,” Herrera-Estrada said.

 

 

Assessing the West

The western United States offers an ideal testing ground for understanding relationships between droughts and emissions from the power sector. In addition to plentiful data from recent droughts, the researchers could examine how emissions change with different types of backup power plants because states across the region have a wide variety of energy mixes.

Colorado, for example, tends to ramp up coal-fired power plants when hydropower dwindles, while California and Idaho increase generation from natural gas. Oregon, Washington and Wyoming tend to increase both. Wyoming and Montana increase coal generation in part so that they can export the electricity to surrounding states that are also experiencing declines due to drought.

“For decades, people have been looking at the impacts of droughts on food security and agriculture,” Herrera-Estrada said. “We’re less aware of exactly how droughts impact the energy sector and pollutant emissions in a quantitative and systematic way.”

Previous efforts to understand how drought affects electricity have mostly relied on models of power plants, which require researchers to make assumptions about factors such as the plants’ efficiencies and decisions about how water resources are allocated. For the current paper, the scientists analyzed statistics reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to Herrera-Estrada, the new study can help validate existing models, which can then be used to gain a more complete picture of the risks associated with droughts and to inform efforts to tamp down drought-induced emissions.

Far beyond the American West, droughts may drive similar emission increases in places that normally rely heavily on hydropower and turn to natural gas, coal or petroleum when waterways run low.

“Other parts of the world depend on hydropower even more than the western U.S.,” said Diffenbaugh, who is also Kimmelman Family senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment. “Our results suggest that hydro-dependent regions may need to consider not only primary generation but also backup generation in order to meet emissions reduction targets, such as those in the UN Paris Agreement.”

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Diffenbaugh is also an affiliate of the Precourt Institute for Energy. Co-authors on the paper are affiliated with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria, Princeton University and the University of Southampton, in Southampton, United Kingdom.

 

60 thoughts on “Droughts boost emissions as hydropower dries up

  1. So when are they going to write the articles: Nights Boost Emissions as Daylight Dries Up (or) Calm Days Boost Emissions as Wind Dries Up?

  2. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Really? From Stanford? Captain Obvious to the rescue. But where is the hat tip to the other side of the cost/benefit analysis? At least the increased carbon dioxide will help vegetation survive the drought with less need for water.

    PBH

    • From the article: “We find that in a number of western states where hydropower plays a key role in the clean energy portfolio, droughts cause an increase in emissions as natural gas or coal-fired power plants are brought online to pick up the slack when water for hydropower comes up short.”

      “Captain Obvious” is right. 🙂

      • They need to drop California from those states where hydro is a clean energy source – it’s not renewable per the Anointed ones in Sacramento.

    • My initial response was also, “obvious”, but we must remember who most of these reports are for. The link listed doesn’t open the report so I cannot cite it.
      The title of the press release is of course obvious to us, but my second thoughts were, “Sure, but how much?” I suspect that is really what the paper is about, but most readers will never even attempt to delve beyond the fluff press releases about these papers. They blithely accept the misrepresentations forwarded, and consider themselves informed.

        • Latitude,
          Thank you, the link worked, and also confirmed my assumption regarding the paper’s content. Their third sentence reads:
          “However, the magnitude of drought-induced changes in power sector emissions is not well understood, especially in the context of climate mitigation policies.”
          The fluff release simply could have added that bit of “teaser” into the release to entice the reader to ‘read more’ to find out ‘how much?’
          Of course these are surely ROM estimates to determine just how big the playing field might need to be.

  3. I thought increased CO2 lead to increased heat which lead to a feedback causing increased water vapour which should cause more rain and thus less drought. What did I miss here?

    • It causes too much rain, too little rain, too much heat, too little heat, too much snow, too little snow, stronger winds, weaker winds…whatever is “bad.”

    • Trebla, CO2 actually does nothing but is an important source of nutrient for land on land and in the oceans/seas. The effect on land & ocean temperatures is zero. Read something in engineering texts on Heat & mass transfer something that so-called climate scientists do not understand.

  4. Electric utilities, grid operators and other entities have known this for years. Why waste social resources on an academic study?

  5. And when it rains more, the opposite happens. If there was a way to increase rainfall, it would look like what we have been doing.

    • What about a follow-up paper: Major Reduction in CO2 Emissions Correlate to Wet Weather Patterns in the West. El Nino years help reduce harmful pollutants and CO2, new study finds.

  6. Carbon-free by 2045 = Reality Denial.

    Reality Deniers choose to ignore the fact that wind and solar generation needs to be backed up by non-green generators such as gas turbine generators.

  7. Standford actually has to state the obvious, because by now, not many of the others (that have bought into the doomsday philosophy) are allowed to have a simple rationale thought and state it publuicly if they did. Standford’s climatology thought police division was alerted, and then paid to come to their recue and explain this to them, in a report.

  8. If the premise is true, that hydro power reduces emissions, then it has to be considered a form of renewable energy.

    • It is renewable in that it has to be backed up by fossil fuels. I am not saying it should be counted to inflate the renewable total. I think hydropower existed before. It is not part of the ‘success’ of renewables. Policy should be measured by what changes, wind and solar. Or on a tangent, the reduction of fossil fuel generation. So we often here, new megawatts. That doesn’t do a lot of good if the capital costs for fossil fuel generation stay about the same. You end with more capital costs and the same production.

  9. “To have reliable and clean electricity, you have to make sure you have an energy portfolio that’s diverse, such that low-emissions electricity sources are able to kick in during a drought when hydropower cannot fully operate,” Herrera-Estrada said.
    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! That’s comedy gold right there.
    Wait, he was serious? “Low emissions sources…kick in”?
    HAHAHAHAHAHA!

    • They likely mean single cycle gas turbine plants. These plants can start generating electricity very quickly so long as they are kept idling. So they make good backups for when the wind dies. They are much less efficient than combined cycle gas plants, so much so that I suspect that a competent analysis would show that a combination of wind, solar, and once through gas backups generates more CO2 than combined cycle gas alone.

      • Single cycle GT power plants, and dual cycle GT plants as well, are not allowed to “idle” while waiting for the wind to die down every few hours. (The enviro politicians and bureaucrats forbid them because NOx emissions rise when they are not above at least 1/2-full load.)

        Instead, they MUST shut down (which forces a near-instantaneous cooldown and cracking of cylinders and exhaust structural metals. Followed a few hours later by another heat-up cycle when they are “allowed” to restart.

  10. “Water is used in electricity generation, both directly for hydropower and indirectly for cooling in thermoelectric power plants,” said climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh

    Besides being Captain Obvious, Noah Diffenbaugh must have thrown in the part about “cooling thermoelectric plants” just for sciency sounding filler because lack of water for cooling those fossil fueled plants did not appear in his conclusion.

    SR

  11. “Wyoming and Montana increase coal generation in part so that they can export the electricity to surrounding states that are also experiencing declines due to drought.”

    Somehow, Diffenbaugh, couldn’t bring himself to say the states that are buy coal-powered electricity are doing so because they are closing their own coal and nuclear powered plants.

    Since Diffenbaugh never mentions nuclear as a way to provide “carbon free” energy, he is actually proposing building more wind and solar farms to shore up hydroelectric.

    SR

    • He also failed to mention that in buying ‘dirty power’ from neighbors allows the buyer to declare “Our state is reducing its ‘dirty power’ generation!” All they are doing is sweeping the ‘dirt’ under their neighbors rug and paying extra to sell the charade.
      Wyoming and Montana merely realize that P.T. Barnum was on to something.

  12. ““To have reliable and clean electricity, you have to make sure you have an energy portfolio that’s diverse, such that low-emissions electricity sources are able to kick in during a drought when hydropower cannot fully operate,” Herrera-Estrada said.”

    Aside from nuclear fission, which Greens also hate, only pixie dust and unicorn farts work well in Liberal’s LaLa Land of Wishful Thinking. As a fossil fuel, natural gas doesn’t fit their thinking on low-emissions” because they really make that their code-word for “no emissions.”

  13. Methods that can be reasonably isolated from the environment should be favored in our basket of energy producers… for granny and the infirm, for mothers and the unPlanned children.

  14. If they didn’t let all the water out they would not be out of water. duh.

    Maybe they had to maintain a minimum downstream flow irregardless of the inflow. Kind of like my bank account. lol

    • No – they were adding a new spill gate that would better calm the water before continuing downstream. That year every environmentalist posed next to the dam to illustrate global warming effects and the drought. No mention of intentionally lowering the water level to enable spill gate construction.

  15. Western states in recent years have suffered the kind of intense droughts that scientists expect to become more common in many regions around the world as global warming continues.

    ($$$ Cha-ching $$$ )
    Another piece of “sciency propaganda” brought to you by your own tax dollars!! Because you are not sufficiently aware of how dire, your precarious existence is, if you don’t get daily propaganda to remind you.
    This “Public Release” is so obvious, it might as well be elevator musac.
    Last I checked most of the area, that is not coastal, is desert. It is desert for a reason. Frequent droughts. The mountains scrape precipitation out of the already dry air, and it gets even dryer. The only thing more “intense” about recent years, is the stupidity of “Clean Power Plan targets” by people who have a dependency on a scarce resource.
    California is now the “electricity barrio” of the western states. And not only do they not produce enough for themselves, but they are going to tell the other states that produce excess, “to keep the air conditioners running in Hollywood”, how they would like that electricity produced. And of course the way they want it produced, is the same recipe that drove themselves into electricity deficit.

  16. What is is about carbon dioxide that causes it to rain more in places that have a problem with too much rain, but rain less in places that have a problem with too little rain? This diabolical gas is always one step ahead of us. Amazing!

    • It likes plants more than people!!
      You can’t trust a “discriminatory molecule”.
      We need to out discriminate this threat, and win the war against “atmospheric non-compliance” with regulatory standards of air composition oversight!

  17. Droughts are the only thing that reduces water for hydro power in the US west/southwest?
    How much water does CA draw from other states? How much water does CA devote to saving the smelt?
    Much of the areas this article is talking about have always been dry and refereed to as “desserts”.
    Increased CO2 is not a bad thing. Droughts in “dessert” areas are not caused by Man’s CO2.
    They are those areas normal climate. Dams have allowed Man to populate those areas by storing water for those areas.
    If they want to say there is not enough water for hydro power, then build more nuclear power plants. They’ll need water for cooling, sure, but most goes back into the rivers without unleashing the dreaded CO2 boogey man as wind and solar power ups do.

  18. Perhaps a solution to all of this “Magical thinking is to install windmills and solar panels on the roofs” of Universities, then to turn off all outside connections to electrical power.

    The result will be a lesson in the renewables. ability to supply all of their actual needs.

    MJED

    • And some of the students might actually reevaluate the other “feels-good”, “sounds-good” stuff they’ve been taught!
      “California Dreamin'” needs a good dose of reality.

  19. A) Decide research outcome,

    B) Start with gross assumptions

    e.g.:

    “Western states in recent years have suffered the kind of intense droughts that scientists expect to become more common in many regions around the world as global warming continues.”

    An assumption only realized by ignoring history and rainfall/drought research showing that our alleged modern droughts are not really droughts as experienced by the Southwest historically.

    ” The western United States offers an ideal testing ground for understanding relationships between droughts and emissions from the power sector. In addition to plentiful data from recent droughts, the researchers could examine how emissions change with different types of backup power plants because states across the region have a wide variety of energy mixes.”

    This reeks of another self satisfaction model.

    “Previous efforts to understand how drought affects electricity have mostly relied on models of power plants, which require researchers to make assumptions about factors such as the plants’ efficiencies and decisions about how water resources are allocated. For the current paper, the scientists analyzed statistics reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

    Bingo!
    “analyzed statistics” collected by the anti-humanity EPA.
    More sugarless California fudge.

    “According to Herrera-Estrada, the new study can help validate existing models, which can then be used to gain a more complete picture of the risks associated with droughts and to inform efforts to tamp down drought-induced emissions.”

    Thus proving that Herrera-Estrada does not understand what models actually or how models work or should work. Herrera-Estrada is not applying the scientific principle.

    A steaming pile of statistical manure, without any possibility of benefiting nature.

  20. “When hydropower runs low in a drought, western states tend to ramp up power generation – and emissions – from fossil fuels. According to a new study from Stanford University, droughts caused about 10 percent of the average annual carbon dioxide emissions from power generation in California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington between 2001 and 2015.”

    10% of bugger all is still bugger all.

  21. Philosophical question/comment:

    a very old question is – If there is no one to hear it, does a tree falling in a forest make any sound?

    similarly – Can there be a drought in a desert where there is no rain?

  22. Ya know, I get the distinct feeling that all CAGW issues of the last decade are “discovered” by a form of ‘accounting’. Think of all the the possible worries that we can have if the meme is assumed to be real and then give us a self evident answer like this one does. Here is another I just thought of: if a hurricane or tornadoes took out a whole windmill farm, that would result in some (commensurate with the marginal contribution they make) increase in CO2. Or sparking wires in breezy weather along a dilapidated powerline in California carrying renewable-based electricity through forest with greenie mandated underbrush build-up being certain to cause a major fire, masses of CO2, CO, dozens of organic chemicals in smoke will be emitted, houses burned, loss of human and animal life and other side unpleasant side effects would result. Remember, they have been awarding PhDs (Australia one for an investigation of reliability of Hadcrut temperature records- a BSc equivalent a couple of generations ago or even a highschool science project) like participation trophies in grade school. Someone is going to get a PhD for this arithmetic!

  23. The thing that struck me about the picture of the Folsom Dam was that there is clearly construction activity going on.

    Further research shows that an auxiliary spillway was under construction when that picture was taken.

    It is highly likely that the low water level in the picture was deliberate, to enable them to keep the construction activity above water level.

    • You nailed it BillP. We have a few other dams that are low. Perris was kept low for several years to enable construction to reinforce it against earthquakes. It has only been two years, but Oroville has been kept low (47% today) even after hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to repair the spillway that was in the world’s focus as water poured over the emergency spillway, and the main spillway eroded with tons of concrete washing into the river below. Town residents are saying it can never be safe. At this time, to ward off another repeat at another dam, water is being drained off most dams in anticipation of Winter snowfall and Spring melt.
      But while they are low, they are great photo opportunities. Well, maybe not Oroville. That near disaster is a little too recent for most everybody to forget.

      • Oroville is foremost a flood control dam, as such it is required to maintain a water level below maximum to maintain control of the water levels in the river downstream. During repairs the level was kept lower than normal to allow the work to be finished. Since the spillway has been finished there has been about 8″ of rain, during the winter you’d expect ~30″of rain so the level will likely increase over the next few months. Maintaining the flow through the river at present can be achieved by flow through the power plant which also generates electricity at the same time. If the level in the dam exceeds 800′ (currently ~665′) it might be required to allow some flow over the spillway as well. This time last year the level was about 700′ and it rose to ~815′ by april following the winter and spring rains.

  24. Maybe some touch on this earlier. Californian has not kept up with fresh water needs to meet increase in population. But not to worry do to their tax policy more people are moving out than moving into Californian.

  25. And in years when hydro power availability is above normal, emissions go down. Unless you address a net, on balance number that can be show as a trend, the study produces little of value.

  26. You nailed it BillP. We have a few other dams that are low. Perris was kept low for several years to enable construction to reinforce it against earthquakes. It has only been two years, but Oroville has been kept low (47% today) even after hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to repair the spillway that was in the world’s focus as water poured over the emergency spillway, and the main spillway eroded with tons of concrete washing into the river below. Town residents are saying it can never be safe. At this time, to ward off another repeat at another dam, water is being drained off most dams in anticipation of Winter snowfall and Spring melt.
    But while they are low, they are great photo opportunities. Well, maybe not Oroville. That near disaster is a little too recent for most everybody to forget.

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