What is it about?

The western United States has experienced severe drought in recent decades, and climate models project increased drought risk in the future. Climate-driven changes in drought could influence electricity systems that depend heavily on hydropower, potentially increasing generation from fossil fuel sources. Using historical data, we quantify the impacts of drought on fossil fuel power plants in the western United States and the consequent effects on emissions and air quality.

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Why is it important?

We find that under extreme drought, electricity generation from individual fossil fuel plants can increase up to 65% relative to average conditions, mainly due to the need to substitute for reduced hydropower. Drought in one electricity region leading to net imports of electricity and thus increased pollutant emissions from power plants in other regions. We estimate that the monetized costs of excess mortality and GHG emissions from drought-induced fossil generation are 1.2 to 2.5x the reported direct economic costs from lost hydro production and increased demand. Combining climate model estimates of future drying with stylized energy-transition scenarios suggests that these drought-induced impacts are likely to remain large even under aggressive renewables expansion, suggesting that more ambitious and targeted measures are needed to mitigate the emissions and health burden from the electricity sector during drought.

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This page is a summary of: Drought impacts on the electricity system, emissions, and air quality in the western United States, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 2023, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2300395120.
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