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Drought and power – what does it mean for our electricity bills?

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Summary:

When you think about the severe drought that continues to affect more than half the country, the first things that come to mind are probably brown lawns and restrictions on your local water use. In the bigger picture, those thirsty cattle and failed corn or soybean crops they're showing on TV mean we’ll see higher food prices in the near future. But extreme heat and droughts also have big effects on energy and on power prices - electricity is related to weather in a major way, and in this case it's an expensive relationship...

Drought

When you think about the severe drought that continues to affect more than half the country, the first things that come to mind are probably brown lawns and restrictions on your local water use. In the bigger picture, those thirsty cattle and failed corn or soybean crops they're showing on TV mean we’ll see higher food pricDrmones in the near future. But extreme heat and droughts also have big effects on energy and on power prices - electricity is related to weather in a major way, and in this case it's an expensive relationship...here's why:

Higher demand, but lower supply

When it gets hot, people turn on the air conditioning. When it doesn’t rain, people water their lawns. Running the a/c and pumping water to sprinklers or irrigation systems uses energy – the hotter and dryer it gets, the more power consumers tend to need. So there’s higher demand for power during heat waves and droughts, particularly at “peak” times when businesses are open and industrial facilities are operating and also using energy…that in turn is in the middle of the workday, which is when temperatures are at their hottest. 

At the same time, those hot and dry conditions make it harder to generate electricity: power plants work by heating up steam to turn turbines - creating all that electricity therefore requires cooling. That cooling is done with water...lots of water: more than half the withdrawal of surface freshwater in the US is for power plant cooling, every kWh we use needed 2 gallons - that's about 7 gallons for every hour you run your central air conditioning! This is why power plants (especially nuclear generating stations) tend to be located on a lake, ocean or river. The nasty heatwave-and-drought combo we saw this summer made not only for less water to cool with - it also made what water there was warmer, so its power plant cooling function was not effective. Imagine cooling off on a hot summer day with a hot bath. Some nuclear plants couldn't run at times this summer, for that reason. 

So big power plants operate at reduced capacity when it’s hot and dry…just when there’s a huge need for power because it’s so hot and dry!

This double whammy of high demand at times of low supply makes for…you guessed it – higher power prices.

What can you do...

Affect demand: Use less electricity. Unplug a few appliances and keep the lights off during the day. Energy efficient appliances can also make a big difference and many utilities are willing to compensate you to control your air conditioning unit for a few hours during heat waves. Think of it as being paid to go to chill at the ice cream store when it's hot.

Affect supply: Get more of your power from sources that don't use water. Wind and solar power generation does not involve the thermal combustion requiring all that cooling - and solar has the advantage of peaking at the same time as electricity demand. ClearlyEnergy's electricity section - coming soon - helps you see all the options for power providers and what kind of electricity they sell you, including sources that don't involve thermal combustion.

By Lisa Zelljadt, you can find me on Google+

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