Skip to content

One Way the California Drought Is Contributing to Climate Change

With less water, there’s less hydropower. And that means energy is getting dirtier.
A man peers over the newly raised San Vicente Dam.
A man peers over the newly raised San Vicente Dam.AP Photo/Gregory Bull

Climate change intensified California’s current drought, and the drought may be intensifying climate change. A new report by the Pacific Institute finds that the state’s energy portfolio has continued to shift away from hydropower and toward dirtier sources of electricity (CityLab covered its 2015 report on the same subject). That’s led to a 10 percent uptick in carbon emissions from California’s power plants, and an extra $2 billion for ratepayers.

Between 1983 and 2013, hydropower accounted for an average 18 percent of California’s total electricity production. It has never been a perfect energy source: Environmentalists object to characterizations of it as ‘renewable,’ because of the negative impact on river ecosystems that large dams invariably have. But in terms of its emissions, “hydro” is clean as a whistle, as it doesn’t burn fuel to produce energy as does, for example, natural gas. It’s also considerably cheaper than other forms of energy.