Press Release

The Vulnerability of Electric Power to Drought

Sep 28, 2016

WASHINGTON—It is well known that drought, like that seen in the American West in recent years, can play havoc with the public water supply. Now, a new study posted by Resources for the Future (RFF) confirms other concerns: Drought can lead to increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and heightened air pollution in the electric power sector.

Because water is required to generate hydroelectricity as well as to cool conventional fossil fuel plants, increases in water scarcity can affect the type of fuels used to generate electricity. The study confirms that drought reduces hydroelectric generation, which is primarily offset by increases in electricity generation from natural gas, rather than a renewable energy source or nuclear generation. The level of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions increases with the growing level of water scarcity.

The authors of the study—Does Water Scarcity Shift the Electricity Generation Mix toward Fossil Fuels? Empirical Evidence from the United States—are RFF Fellow Casey J. Wichman and Jonathan Eyer of the University of Southern California.

In order to estimate the effect of water scarcity on US electricity production, the authors use an econometric model of monthly plant-level electricity generation levels between 2001 and 2012 for every power plant in the United States. Their research provides empirical evidence that drought can increase CO2 emissions as well as local pollutants.

The authors go on to quantify the average social costs of water scarcity attributable to CO2 emissions increases to be $51 million per state per year (2015 dollars); however, they state that “this figure is much larger for regions that rely heavily on hydropower.”

Read the full study: Does Water Scarcity Shift the Electricity Generation Mix toward Fossil Fuels? Empirical Evidence from the United States

Read the related blog post by Dr. Wichman: Does Water Scarcity Increase Carbon Emissions from the Electricity Sector?

Resources for the Future does not take institutional positions. Please attribute any findings to the authors or the research itself. For example, use "According to research from RFF …" rather than "According to RFF …".

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Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonpartisan organization based in Washington, DC, that conducts rigorous economic research and analysis to improve environmental and natural resource policy.