Solar and wind energy enhances drought resilience and groundwater sustainability

SWE enhances groundwater sustainability

California recently endured a record-breaking drought after 2012 (refs. 20,21), which significantly impacted food production22, reduced hydropower generation23 and caused severe environmental issues (e.g., groundwater depletion, wildfires, tree mortality, land subsidence). As the largest agricultural producing state in the USA, California earned ~$47 billion from its agricultural sector and contributed to 13% of the US total in 2015 even during the drought. The maintenance of crop revenue and overall resilience of the agricultural sector largely relied on the unsustainable groundwater overdraft, which effectively offset the drought impact, but contributed to severe groundwater depletion (\(\sim\!\!3.7\ {{\rm{km}}}^{3}\)/year24). In the energy sector, during this driest year of the drought, decreased surface water availability sent the in-state hydropower generation plunging to 7% of the total electricity generated, substantially below the state’s long-term average of around 18%23. This power deficit was offset by electricity generated through the rapidly growing solar and wind fleet, as well as from increased use of natural gas and electricity purchased from out-of-state sources23. Furthermore, for the first time, in 2012, solar and wind electricity generation exceeded hydropower in California23 due to the declining cost of wind turbines and solar photovoltaic (PV) in conjunction with the popularity and stringency of the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), which mandates a certain proportion of renewables in the energy production.

The penetration of SWE not only offset some of the decreases in hydropower but has implications beyond the energy sector given the inextricable links among food, energy and water. This added value can be derived by considering the sustainability trade-offs within the WFE nexus. In general, there is a direct trade-off between hydroelectricity production and irrigation of crops in how surface water is allocated between the two. There is also an indirect trade-off between hydroelectricity production and groundwater abstraction, as groundwater can substitute for reduced surface water availability during a drought, which in the case of the recent California drought allowed crop production to generally be unaffected. Given relatively low groundwater recharge rates and increasing risk of drought, this indirect trade-off highlights potential sustainability challenges for groundwater.

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