Climate Crisis: California is leading the way in renewables, and it's time the rest of America followed

California managed to be the largest agricultural producer in the US despite facing severe drought.


                            Climate Crisis: California is leading the way in renewables, and it's time the rest of America followed

California's increasing shift towards solar and wind energy has paid off. The state has managed to beat drought conditions between 2012-2017 and has saved its groundwater reserve, thanks to the rise in renewables, finds a new study.

Using drought-prone California as an example, a research team shows that increased solar and wind energy can reduce the reliance on hydropower, especially during drought. According to the researchers, these findings can also be applied internationally, which can lead to positive changes for sustainable water and food security.

Additionally, the findings could feed into policy, especially useful for policymakers looking to meet the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.  

These benefits have been unrecognized and under-appreciated, say the study authors. "Traditionally, the social value of solar and wind energy has mostly been focused on air pollution mitigation and carbon emission reductions," says Xiaogang He, the lead author and an incoming assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the National University of Singapore.

The researchers chose to focus on California, which, despite facing severe droughts, has managed to be the largest agricultural producer in the US. The sector earned the state $47 billion and contributed to 13% of the country's total agricultural output in 2015. 

To understand how California fared during droughts, the team constructed a model that factored in California's historical water conditions and energy use. Based on this, the team investigated how future increase in solar and wind energy use could influence hydropower production and groundwater use in the state. 

Lessons from California to the larger world

Acute droughts in California meant the state had to rely on its groundwater reserves, contributing to severe groundwater depletion. But at the same time, lower prices and state mandates made way for a rise in solar and wind electricity installation, taking over hydropower's monopoly in the state. By using more solar and wind energy, the authors say, the state can reduce its dependency on groundwater by diverting more surface water to irrigation, instead of hydropower.

Solar and wind electricity began to exceed hydropower in the state thanks to lower prices and state mandates. (Getty Images)

However, the authors warn that this could also increase the burden on groundwater storage in the future, nullifying the benefits of renewables. They worry that California will see more droughts in the future. Further, the state also has to meet the demand for increased water due to socio-economic development, say experts.

The way forward, according to them, is to increase solar and wind energy and impose regulations on groundwater use earlier rather than later. "Our results also suggest that policymakers need to take the long-term outlook of groundwater depletion into consideration when planning further deployment of solar and wind energy. If groundwater aquifers keep getting depleted in the future, then the added value of penetrating solar and wind energy will largely decrease," says He.

The team proposes that policymakers find an optimal balance between solar, wind and hydropower. "I think with increased penetration of solar and wind energy, we should think about how to use policy instruments to have a right balance of the three [solar, wind and hydropower] to better manage the conflicts between food and energy production, especially when water is limited," He told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW).

According to the researchers, the work is unique and timely and could have broad interests and implications both for California, other states in the US and other countries. "For example, our framework is sufficiently flexible that it could be applied to better manage water-energy-food trade-offs in developing regions and facilitate progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). However, it should be cautious when extrapolating these findings to smaller-scale policy recommendations," He told MEAWW. 

The study has been published in Nature Communications.

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