In Grim California Drought, Renewables a Bright Spot
July 2, 2014
Steve Arthur practically lives out of his truck these days.
He runs one of Fresno’s busiest well-drilling companies, and hustles up and down the highway to check on drilling rigs that run 24 hours a day.
“It’s officially getting crazy,” Arthur says. “We go and we go but it just seems like we can’t go fast enough.”
Drilling in California isn’t just for oil and gas — it’s for water. And during this severe drought, farmers and ranchers are relying heavily on pumping groundwater. Counties in the farm-rich Central Valley are issuing record numbers of permits for new wells. But the drilling frenzy could threaten the state’s shrinking underground aquifers.
Arthur says he’s lucky if he gets three hours of sleep a night.
State officials estimate water tables in some parts of the Central Valley have dropped 100 feet below historical lows. Groundwater pumping could also put more stress on the San Andreas Fault, which has moving plates that can cause earthquakes.
And those aren’t the only consequences.
“We’re on a one-way trajectory towards depletion, towards running out of groundwater,” says Jay Famiglietti, a University of California hydrologist and a leading expert on groundwater. He points out California’s the only Western state that doesn’t really monitor or regulate how much groundwater is pumped.
“So it’s not unlike having several straws in a glass, and everyone drinking at the same time, and no one really watching the level,” Famiglietti says.
That could change. A bill making its way through the California legislature could begin requiring local agencies to track, and in some cases, even restrict groundwater pumping. Some farmers oppose it, saying it’s a violation of their private property rights.
One of wind energy’s most overlooked benefits is that it requires virtually no water to produce electricity, while almost all other electricity sources evaporate tremendous amounts of water. In 2008, the nation’s thermal power plants withdrew 22 to 62 trillion gallons of freshwater from rivers, lakes, streams, and aquifers, and consumed 1 to 2 trillion gallons. By displacing generation from these conventional power plants, U.S. wind energy currently saves around 35 billion gallons of water per year, the equivalent of 120 gallons per person or 285 billion bottles of water.
Wind energy’s water-saving benefits have received increased attention in recent weeks, with record wind and solar output helping to keep the lights on amidst the severe drought afflicting California and a new Department of Energy report focused on the energy-water nexus:
California is currently facing a record drought, and unfortunately climatologists view this as a harbinger of coming climate change. As of June 1, California’s precipitation stood at only 61 percent of average, the remaining snowpack was around 2 percent of average, and the state’s main reservoirs held only 50-70 percent of their average water storage.
The drought has taken a toll on California’s hydroelectric generation, though wind energy is helping to pick up the slack. Through the end of April, California’s year-to-date hydroelectric generation stood at 3,981 GWh, down 3,475 GWh or 47% from the 7,456 GWh produced during the same period last year. Wind generation more than made up for that shortfall, providing 3,955 GWh through the end of April. California wind generation has grown more than 150 percent from the 1,550 GWh California produced during those same months in 2009.
As evidence of wind energy’s growth in California, the state grid operator set a new wind energy generation record of 4,768 MW on April 12 at 5:48 PM. This eclipses the previous record of 4,302 MW, which was set on June 23, 2013.
While the drought is imposing major costs on the state’s agriculture and Californians in general, the drought also poses challenges for electric reliability because the electricity system is so heavily dependent on water. The California grid operator expects 1,370 MW to 1,669 MW (18-22 percent) of the state’s 7,666 MW of hydroelectric power plants to be unavailable to provide energy to meet peak system demands this summer. Moreover, the grid operator notes that 1,150 MW of the state’s thermal power plants are at risk of having cooling water supply curtailments this summer.
In addition to directly offsetting freshwater consumption at thermal power plants, wind energy helps combat the impacts of drought by allowing grid operators to save hydroelectric energy (in the form of water behind dams) until they need it to meet grid reliability needs. A MWh of wind energy almost always displaces a MWh that would have been produced by a fossil-fired power plant, though sometimes grid operators use wind energy to store additional water behind dams where it can be used later to displace fossil fuel generation. While a number of complex factors affect how dams use their water resources, the abundant supply of wind energy this spring has likely alleviated pressure on the operators’ need to use water to produce electricity, helping them maintain reservoir levels so they can continue producing power and providing grid reliability services through the summer. In addition, in most regions the variability of the wind energy resource from year-to-year is much lower than that of the hydroelectric resource, so adding wind energy improves the reliability and resilience of the electricity system.
Last week, the Department of Energy released an in-depth report that explores the many ways our energy and water resource systems are intertwined. A primary finding of the report, first mentioned on page 2 and repeated several times throughout, is that “Some renewable energy sources—such as photovoltaics (PV) and wind energy—require very little water.” This is reinforced in the “key messages” box at the beginning of Chapter 2, which notes that “Some emerging technologies, such as carbon capture, have the potential to increase energy’s water intensity; others, such as wind and PV can lower it.”
Desperate farmers and ranchers in California seem to have the perspective that they have nothing to lose at this point and many of them are turning to water dowsers in the hope that they can divine the location of underground water on their lands so that they can drill more wells. Marc Mondavi, whose well-known family vineyard produces grapes in the Napa Valley area of California, is a not just a “believer” he even dabbles in water witching himself. He charges approximately $500 to divine for water and a further fee if he is successful in locating a productive site for a well. Mondavi has achieved some notoriety in Napa Valley for his dowser skills. In fact, the winery developed a line of wine called, “The Divining Rod” which comes with the description, “All wines are natural, only one is supernatural.” The website for the line of wine includes a “How to water witch” section and features a dramatic image of Mondavi with his diving rods in hand.
With drought conditions in California predicted to persist or even get worse, farmers, ranchers and residents are struggling to maintain their livelihoods, livestock and ability to meet their budgets as water fees and the costs of goods increases. Although there is no scientific evidence that water dowsers have real water location skills, the severity of the drought in the state has put some of them back in business.