Snow as a Battery?

I know what you’re thinking, but no, I’m not going to show you a video of someone powering an incandescent bulb by plugging it into a snowball, but I am going to draw a serious analogy illustrating the importance of snowpack.

COMM EP Blog Image 2015 04What is a battery? Well in the modern sense, it is a container consisting of one or more cells, in which chemical energy is converted into electricity and used as a source of power, but to put it more simply, it’s a device that stores energy for use when you need it. You’re probably picturing the pair of AA’s lodged in the back of your TV remote, but batteries come in many forms. For example, a hydro dam can be considered a kind of battery: it stores potential energy in the form of a reservoir, and releases it through a turbine—transitioning to kinetic energy—to generate electricity. This quality of storage is what gives a “battery” its defining characteristic.

The snowpack itself is a hugely important part of this process. It is not enough for the water to come directly as rain —doing so causes it to run off too quickly to be of significant use. By accumulating in a dense snowpack, which melts slowly over the course of spring and into summer, there is a controlled flow that provides sufficient watering over an extended period of time. This annual melt recharges the reservoirs and aquifers, which the state turns to in the warmer months when precipitation is scarce. Further, timing and type of precipitation are crucial; if we received an incredible amount of rainfall in February it would largely be of little use when we’d need it the most during the heat of the following summer.

This is why storage potential is so important; the natural ability to replenish over a period of time is a key to the hydrologic cycle’s sustainable functionality. Think of your favorite electronic device, perhaps your cell phone or music player. All the electricity in the world is useless to powering your gadgets if it cannot be stored and then released intermittently as needed. In comparison [for similar reasons], this is also one of the great barriers to widespread solar power: many of us can only use it to power our homes and businesses when the sun is shining. High capacity battery technology has not yet reached the level (or, at least, the cost effectiveness) where it can be easily paired with a residential solar array.

Nature has spent a few billion years perfecting the hydrologic cycle. As we find ourselves in the midst of the fourth consecutive year of significantly low levels of precipitation, however, there have clearly been a few malfunctions in this natural battery—recent reports have put California snowpack levels at just five percent of the norm for this time of year. We’re going to need several years of above average snowfall to undo the current conditions, and just doing snow dances at the beginning of every ski season is not going to be enough this time around.

Fortunately, SBC is hard at work helping local jurisdictions reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through our Climate Planning projects, as well as develop urban rural connections and empower organizations in the Sierra Nevada via the Sierra Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Partnership (CAMP). With your help, we can foster solutions that encourage a return to recharging the Sierra snowpack battery. 

Image taken April, 2014 at Castle Peak. Photo courtesy of Nicholas Martin.