The pitch to close PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was hard to refuse. It sold California on the best version of itself, where environmentalism and public safety harmonized with our goals for powering the grid exclusively with renewable sources.
The twin-reactor facility along the San Luis Obispo coast powers millions of homes, and the lost output is supposed to be substituted with sources that do not emit greenhouse gases. That was a highlight of the agreement with labor and environmental groups when PG&E announced in 2016 that it would not renew the plant’s license and decommission it by 2025. It was also a key selling point for Californians outside the SLO community.
Five years later, that promise has become obsolete. As California absorbs the constant gut punches from global warming’s quickening pace, the added stress on the power grid has increased the state’s reliance on fossil fuels — even with Diablo Canyon’s 2,200 megawatts of energy still online. California is facing unnerving realities with its power supply that are undermining the transition to a 100% green energy grid by 2045.
So far, the Public Utilities Commission, California’s utility regulator, appears more concerned with replacing energy than reducing dangerous greenhouse gases.
Recurring heat waves have hiked electricity demand statewide to the point where we experienced rolling blackouts last summer for the first time in almost two decades. That’s forced California to burn cheaper carbon-emitting sources to keep the lights on. Natural gas accounted for over 48% of in-state power generation last year, up from 43% in 2019, according to the California Energy Commission. Roughly 29% of imported electricity was either natural gas or an unspecified non-renewable.
The extreme weather this summer has only deepened our dependence on it. About 28% of the state’s energy supply is imported from other states, and the vulnerability of that approach was exposed earlier this month when the Bootleg Fire in Oregon threatened transmission lines that provide 4,000 megawatts of power. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an emergency proclamation allowing power plants to “generate as much power as possible” to avoid catastrophe as a historic heat wave scorched the West Coast.
In a cruel twist, California needed to burn excess fossil fuels to meet the electricity demand caused by extreme heat that experts say would have been impossible without climate change. That’s right — we need fossil fuels to protect us from the environmental dangers that grew more severe because of our over-reliance on them.
PUC’s solution over the last year has been to expand the state’s energy capacity. Last year’s blackouts were primarily caused by the rapid drop in solar power once the sun went down and temperatures remained high. To address that, an estimated 2,000 of the 3,500 megawatts of new energy capacity coming online by August is from industrial-scale batteries that store surplus solar.
Still, that doesn’t address where that power is coming from, and that’s why the PUC’s decisions right now are critical. The utility regulator approved a landmark order last month, requiring California’s power companies to bring 11,500 megawatts of new electricity resources online between 2023 and 2026. Replacing Diablo Canyon’s supply and fulfilling its green energy promise was at the heart of the order.
Stop dealing in deception
Again, however, the focus was on capacity and ensuring the reliability of the grid. Zero-emission sources are only required for 3,500 megawatts of the total order, which essentially covers Diablo Canyon. Mark Specht, senior energy analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said companies could decide to “buy a bunch of standalone energy storage, which doesn’t actually generate clean electricity.” Until additional requirements are laid out, the door is still open for fossil fuels to play a role.
“There’s really no guarantee that this procurement order will ratchet down greenhouse gas emissions to the extent that we need to,” Sprecht said. “I’m optimistic. I’m hopeful (the PUC) will address it. But the jury’s still out.”
The closure of Diablo Canyon and the driving forces behind the decommission project show that California’s ambitions are once again being humbled by the constraints of reality. The prospects of delivering on the promises of the 2016 agreement have sharply divided scientists, analysts and think tanks around the state.
This Editorial Board recently met with the Breakthrough Institute, an organization that argues that a carbon-free energy producer like Diablo Canyon needs to remain open. For decades, we’ve been told that closing nuclear plants is a good thing, yet a growing body of research shows that it’s far safer and cleaner than coal and gas. State regulators are failing to eliminate fossil fuels from California’s energy stock, and with alternatives lacking in scale, Breakthrough’s experts believe a more realistic path to achieving California’s climate goals is by salvaging our last nuclear facility.
We remain hopeful that California won’t need such a drastic reversal. But the window to act is rapidly closing. While the procurement order last month does try to offset carbon emissions, it still makes the elimination of fossil fuels feel like a pipe dream.
PUC must add ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets to the procurement order. And California leaders need to streamline production of solar and wind farms to harness our most abundant renewable sources.
Increased greenhouse gas emissions tend to follow the closing of nuclear plants, so what California is trying to achieve with Diablo Canyon would be groundbreaking. But if state leaders want to pretend that simply adding clean energy capacity is the same thing as producing it, they’re dealing in deception. We aren’t going to be fooled.
The first reactor at Diablo Canyon closes in three years. The PUC has no room for error, and neither does our warming planet.