The Energy Collective Group

This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.

9,753 Subscribers

Post

California Says Goodbye to its Last Nuclear Power Plant. What Will Replace It?

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) issued a momentous final decision to close the state’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon. This outcome represents the culmination of over a year of effort initiated by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) in 2016. When PG&E first brought this to the commission, they called for the closure because the plant had become uneconomic in the face of customers increasingly leaving the utility for Community Choice Aggregators, like CleanPowerSF, and a changing electric grid that relies more on flexible, distributed energy resources like wind and solar.

With its recent decision, the CPUC agreed with PG&E, stating that renewing Diablo Canyon’s license to operate beyond 2025 would not be cost-effective.

What does the decision entail?

More specifically, the decision includes the following allowances and restrictions as part of the shut-down process:

  • Employee retention and retraining. The decision authorizes approximately $172 million for employee retention and retraining to ensure the plant has an adequate number of employees through the end of its license. What’s more, it gives employees who want to remain at PG&E the skills they need to take on new roles.
  • PG&E gets paid for relicensing activities. PG&E can recover almost $20 million for the work they did through April 2011 to renew the plant’s license.
  • Residents do not get paid for property tax impacts. The commission denies funds for the Community Impacts Mitigation Program, designed in part to compensate San Luis Obispo County area residents for the loss of property taxes resulting from Diablo Canyon’s closure.
  • Regulators will decide replacement in another proceeding. The decision shifts where the commission will consider and decide what resources will replace the plant to the Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) proceeding. This effort is already underway, and PG&E, along with other utilities, will submit their plans this June.

Where does this leave California?

At Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), we recognize nuclear energy can provide greenhouse-gas free electricity. However, we also agree that under these circumstances, continuing to operate an aging and increasingly unnecessary source of baseload power – or power that cannot ramp up and down quickly – doesn’t make sense. Additionally, PG&E and the commission need to replace the plant carefully in order to ensure Diablo Canyon’s closure doesn’t come with the unintended consequence of increasing harmful carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

To that end, EDF will continue to push PG&E and the commission for an exact and clear plan about how they intend to fill the gap left by Diablo Canyon with diverse, clean energy resources. PG&E’s original plan to only use energy efficiency and utility-scale renewable resources to replace the nuclear power is not strong enough on its own to achieve California’s clean energy and climate goals reliably.

EDF will continue to push PG&E and the commission for an exact and clear plan about how they intend to fill the gap left by Diablo Canyon with diverse, clean energy resources.

In addition, the state needs energy management solutions like demand response, energy storage, and time-of-use electricity rates to better integrate more renewables and adapt to the state’s evolving energy mix. As demonstrated by Lawrence Berkeley National Lab’s Demand Response Potential Study, these solutions can shift energy demand to when cheap, clean resources, like solar, are abundant through price signals that make it more or less attractive for California businesses and residents to use electricity at certain times of day. They also offer a critical solution to steep increases in energy demand. Rather than turning to polluting natural gas plants to serve periods of high demand, meeting it with these clean energy solutions helps California use more renewables and rely less on fossil fuels.

In the case of energy storage, electric vehicle batteries, for example, can charge when wind and solar are available and draw on that electricity at other times when it would otherwise be powered by natural gas. Shifting how people use electricity with these tools reduces the cost of the entire system, in part because they help the state use existing, cheaper resources more efficiently.

With careful planning, the closure of Diablo Canyon will not deter California from continuing on its path as a clean energy leader for the country. In fact, replacing this aging nuclear plant with clean energy resources will continue to accelerate the transition to a clean, affordable, and sustainable electricity system.

By Larissa Koehler

Photo source: Marya from San Luis Obispo, USA (Flickr) CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Original Post

Content Discussion

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on January 24, 2018

There is no way that any mass investment in wind and solar can be cheaper than simply refurbishing Diablo Canyon and running it for another 20 years.  Heck, for the price of a new DC’s worth of concentrating solar (compensating for capacity factor), you could build 2 entire Vogtle expansions.  You wouldn’t need to be anywhere near a gas line either.

I think Environmental Progress has this one right.  This deal to kill Diablo Canyon is a scam between Jerry Brown and PG&E.  PG&E gets to build a lot of new capacity which they’re allowed to depreciate (since DC will be fully depreciated), PG&E’s holding company gets to make a lot of free money on marked-up natural gas, and the Brown family makes a lot of money on their natural gas interests.  It’s dirty all around.  The only clean thing is the power that Diablo Canyon generates.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on January 24, 2018

…PG&E first brought this to the commission, they called for the closure because the plant had become uneconomic…

Uneconomic compared to what? fossil gas?

The economics of the plant should only be compared to other emission-free, carbon-free alternatives. When you’ve committed to a 50% renewable target (which is pretty good when combined with 15% nuclear), adding even more renewable generation (which will be highly correlated with the existing renewables) plus storage to replace the nuclear plants will be hugely expensive.

To save money, you’ve got to replace the nukes with flexible generation in the form of fossil fuel. So in effect, California has chosen not to lead on climate, but instead will prolong its use of dirty fossil fuel.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 24, 2018

The California Public Utilities Commission’s decision is not “momentous”, and Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant has not been “closed”. It’s not even an “aging nuclear power plant”, and would not be replaced not by “cleaner energy resources” (there aren’t any), but by burning natural gas, just like San Onofre was in 2013.
Diablo Canyon will be generating 17 trillion watthours of carbon-free electricity for at least the next eight years.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 25, 2018

EP, it’s encouraging you, Nathan, and others see what’s happening here.

I can’t begin to express the frustration of being on the front lines of this fight and witnessing the advice of experts – physicists, engineers, and climatologists, with pedigrees from Berkeley, MIT, Stanford, Columbia, Oxford, and beyond – be ignored by California’s corrupt, governor-appointed Public Utilities Commission at the expense of global environment.

Rest assured – this story is far from over.

Ian Crawford's picture
Ian Crawford on January 25, 2018

Larissa, I am disappointed you didn’t mention geothermal energy in your otherwise excellent article. Southern California is home to one of the most accessible geothermal energy resources in the world at the Salton Sea. Geothermal is a low emissions, baseload resource providing electricity 24/7 365 days a year and should be seriously considered as a replacement for nuclear energy in the Golden State.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on January 25, 2018

Folks better than I did the legwork; I just work to spread the message.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on January 26, 2018

Geothermal is also extremely limited in geographic reach and total feasible capacity.  It cannot be scaled to any great degree, making it useless for mass decarbonization.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on January 26, 2018

There is approximately 2.4 gigawatts of total geothermal power available in the Salton Sea, which would (in theory) be capable of replacing one nuclear plant like Diablo Canyon, if:

• $billions in transmission were available to where the power would be used
• geothermal wells could be counted on to perform indefinitely
• there was a significant savings in carbon emissions – there’s none
• there was any savings in cost (Diablo Canyon is a $7 billion resource for which Californians have already paid)
• California’s Public Utility Commission hadn’t recently declared baseload sources of energy aren’t “consistent with California’s long-term energy goals”
• Not scalable

Geothermal does nothing nuclear doesn’t already do better.

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on January 27, 2018

Geothermal does nothing nuclear doesn’t already do better

I agree with that statement, but I’d be cautious about making hard statements about limits on geothermal power. Particularly in the Imperial valley.

The Salton Sea sits above one of the largest and shallowest pools of magma known (outside of places like Iceland and Yellowstone). There’s enough high grade heat there to deliver hundreds of gigawatts of power for several centuries, IF there were an economical way to tap it. Currently there isn’t, but a few people are working on it.

Like so many other things, it all comes back to economics, available technology, and R&D funding.

Jesper Antonsson's picture
Jesper Antonsson on January 29, 2018

changing electric grid that relies more on flexible, distributed energy resources like wind and solar

Wind and solar are anti-flexible, actually. They produce during certain weather events, and the only flexibility you have is in curtailment. Nuclear is far more flexible. It provides stable power that can be ramped up and down somewhat if need be, and you can schedule fuel changes and maintenance to low-demand seasons.

However, we also agree that under these circumstances, continuing to operate an aging and increasingly unnecessary source of baseload power – or power that cannot ramp up and down quickly – doesn’t make sense.

You don’t agree. You claim. Btw, it’s ludicrous to pounce on nuclear’s inability to ramp up and down quickly on demand when your preferred alternatives ramp up and down quickly outside of your control, which is far worse.

Additionally, PG&E and the commission need to replace the plant carefully in order to ensure Diablo Canyon’s closure doesn’t come with the unintended consequence of increasing harmful carbon emissions from fossil fuels.

There is no amount of care that can accomplish that. Unless you get a 100% RE grid, nuclear closures will increase carbon emissions.

In fact, replacing this aging nuclear plant with clean energy resources will continue to accelerate the transition to a clean, affordable, and sustainable electricity system.

Nuclear is clean, affordable and sustainable. The RE-fossil mix might be affordable, but isn’t clean nor sustainable. There is no acceleration involved in closing the best non-fossil source, rather the opposite.