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Drought's impact on energy supply

Written by Saltanat Berdikeeva

Edited by Hannah Hillson

Last updated 09/13/2022

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What is drought?

More and more areas of the U.S. have been experiencing droughts in recent years. 2022 is one of the driest years in the country. Drought impacts water supplies and can cause wildfires, power outages, and public health problems. So, what is drought? And why is it a growing problem in the U.S.? 

According to the National Drought Mitigation Center, drought is a “deficiency of precipitation over an extended period (usually a season or more), resulting in a water shortage.” The risk of drought to people’s well-being and economy can vary, depending on the climatic conditions of their region and adaptation. For example, communities in deserts of North Africa have adapted their lifestyle by not settling in one area for an extended period, wearing heat-appropriate clothing, and keeping animals, like camels, that are resilient to desert conditions. By contrast, dry conditions and heat in Massachusetts for three weeks this summer have led to severe drought and brush fires

Problems associated with droughts

Drought has many effects going beyond the water shortage, as detailed below. 

  • Wildfires. In recent years, dry conditions ignited raging wildfires in Alaska, California, Oregon, Montana, Nevada, Washington State, Colorado, Texas, Arizona, and many other states. Seventy-one large active fires across the U.S. have been recorded since September 8, 2022. 
  • Food shortages. Drought can lead to crop failures, diseases in some crops, and high food prices. 
  • Health problems. Droughts can lead to poor air quality, hygiene, sanitation, malnutrition, and disease outbreaks. One of the significant impacts of drought is on mental health. Agricultural communities, whose livelihoods depend on water to grow crops, can suffer from anxiety and depression over the loss of crops and financial stresses. 
  • Energy issues. Severe water shortages can also result in low energy generation, even temporarily shut down  affected energy facilities. Power outages can also be a direct result of utilities deliberately shutting down electricity to prevent wildfires. Electric power lines coming in contact with vegetation were some of the causes of major wildfires in recent years. 

Why does drought impact the power grid?

The energy production and extraction, delivery, and processing of coal, natural gas, biofuel, and nuclear power requires water. Insufficient water supplies slow down energy production. Drought is particularly detrimental to hydropower generation. Hydropower accounts for 31.5% of total U.S. renewable power generation and 6.3% of total U.S. power production. Most of the hydropower generation is concentrated in the Western states. 

Declining winter precipitation reduces water flow to hydropower dams, which reduces electricity generation. Replacing the loss from hydropower generation with natural gas or coal is costly and leads to more pollution. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) recently warned that severe drought could lead to the failure of power plants in the U.S. due to the drop in hydropower generation and strong energy demand. NERC is a non-profit regulatory body that promotes the reliability of North American bulk power transmission. Droughts can create more demand for energy as people turn up the air conditioning, which strains the power grid.

Because malfunctioning electrical equipment or downed transmission lines during drought can trigger wildfires, some utility companies try to reduce the risk by shutting down portions of the grid. It is a necessary measure to avoid liability, especially in drought-stricken Western states. California’s major electric utility, PG&E, filed for bankruptcy in January 2019 after its electrical equipment reportedly caused wildfires. 

Utility efforts to prevent wildfires and electricity supply and demand imbalance during extreme heat conditions can lead to rolling blackouts and brownouts. Customers pay higher rates when the lights are on during heatwaves and droughts. Since June 2022, 47.73% of the contiguous U.S. has experienced moderate to extreme drought, contributing to more expensive electric bills despite customers’ efforts to conserve energy. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the current weather pattern called La Niña alters ocean temperatures and causes droughts and flooding. And climate change worsens such extreme weather events. NOAA expects that La Niña will last through 2023.

How to prepare for drought and power outages?

Drought and power outages impact the well-being of people, agriculture, and the environment. If you live in a drought-prone area, you can take the following steps to prepare for drought and power outages.

Follow drought news and updates. Due to climate change, droughts are forecasted months ahead. Typically, limited snowfall and rain during the winter can predict the severity of drought in the summer. 

  • Check the drought forecast for your state at the National Drought Mitigation Center
  • Follow your municipality’s updates on drought conditions in your area and any guidelines on how to cope with drought.

Conserve indoor water

  • Fix dripping faucets and plumbing leaks.
  • Invest in water and energy-efficient appliances.
  • Wash only full loads of laundry to use water more efficiently.
  • Use aerators in faucets to reduce the water flow and control the stream.
  • Install a water-efficient showerhead and take shorter showers.
  • Invest in high-efficiency toilets.
  • Avoid taking baths and running the water while brushing your teeth.
  • Avoid defrosting meat with hot water.

Conserve water outdoors

  • Use native and drought-tolerant plants, shrubs, and grasses.
  • Invest in a drip irrigation system for watering plants since it uses water more efficiently.
  • Use mulch to retain soil moisture.
  • Examine your well pump frequently for any leaks.
  • Avoid using water toys to prevent water waste.
  • Follow your area’s water use guidelines.

Prepare alternative power sources and supplies

  • Invest in a backup power generator or solar battery. It will be particularly necessary if you drive an electric vehicle, your house relies on well water, live in a drought and fire-risk area, or depend on an electric medical device.
  • Buy extra batteries, flashlights, and portable chargers. 
  • Stockpile candles if the outage is prolonged, but use them carefully to avoid fires.
  • Buy at least a three-day water non-perishable food supply for each member of your household, including pets.
  • Fill up your car’s gas tank. Pumps at gas stations may not operate during a power outage.

Protect appliances

  • Unplug all your appliances and electronic devices. 
  • Use surge protectors to prevent malfunction and damage to such devices from sudden power surges.
  • Use smoke and carbon monoxide detectors with battery backup on each floor of your home. 
  • Avoid opening and closing your refrigerator door often. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, food in a refrigerator stays cold for four hours, and the freezer keeps its temperature for 48 hours. 

Take care of medical needs

  • Discuss your options with your medical provider if you depend on electricity to operate medical devices like a heart monitor, oxygen concentrators, nebulizers, feeding equipment, wheelchairs, and others.
  • Ask how long you can refrigerate your medication and what to do with it during a prolonged outage. 

Make an evacuation and emergency shelter plan. An extended power outage during extreme heat conditions can harm health, whether you have a medical condition or not. Follow your local authority’s guidelines if you need to evacuate and seek shelter in a cooling center due to a drought-related wildfire or frequent and extended power outages.

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