From the San Diego Union Tribune

Anti-nuclear activists have been popping Champagne corks over the news that the last remaining nuclear power plant in California, the Diablo Canyon facility outside of San Luis Obispo, is expected to shut downwithin the next nine years.

But a number of critics say if history is a guide, California will become more dependent on a fossil fuel — natural gas — in order to make up for the electricity generation that will be lost when Diablo Canyon gets mothballed.

“What is absolutely outrageous is to suggest you can take Diablo Canyon offline and not increase our dependence on methane, fracked gas and not increase carbon emissions,” said Michael Shellenberger, president of Environmental Progress, a pro-nuclear environmental group based in Berkeley.

Executives at Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that runs Diablo Canyon, say the 2,160 megawatts of electricity the plant generates can be offset by energy storage, greater efficiency and renewable power from sources such as solar and wind.

The president of PG&E’s electricity division, Geisha Williams, said the closure of the plant’s two reactors — scheduled in November 2024 and August 2025 — will not translate into a spike in natural gas usage in the state.

“We’ve got roughly 10 years between now and then,” Williams said. “Our approach will be to have a highly integrated portfolio of renewable and other sources so we don’t have to increase the gas usage. That’s really our focus and that’s really our goal.”

Producing power since 1985, Diablo Canyon generates almost 18,000 gigawatt-hours of power each year, powering 1.7 million homes.

Within days of PG&E’s announcement of its intention to close the plant, two studies were released claiming natural gas use will go up as Diablo goes down.

An analysis by the PIRA Energy Group, based in New York City, predicted that a downtrend for natural gas use in Northern California would reverse after Diablo Canyon shut down. Instead, natural gas would rise to 34 percent from 2023 to 2026.

“That’s a lot of energy supply that’s being taken off the system that needs to be replaced,” said Morris Greenberg, PIRA’s managing director of North American Power. “And it really isn’t cost effective to replace all that with renewables over a two-year period. As a result, you need more natural gas.”

Days earlier, analysts from Bloomberg Intelligence said replacing the output from Diablo Canyon with solar-generated electricity would cost $15 billion.

“Gas-power plants will probably be needed for backup when wind and solar plants aren’t available,” researchers Rob Barnett and Kit Konolige wrote in their analysis June 22.

Todd Strauss, PG&E’s senior director of energy policy planning and analysis, said the Bloomberg report does not reflect the numbers that PG&E forecasts for a rapidly changing energy sector.

“It’s a very different world going forward,” Strauss said.

Pointing to growth in renewables, improvements in energy efficiency and storage capability, PG&E officials think they won’t have to replace every megawatt of electricity generated at Diablo to meet customer demand in the future.

For example, the state’s booming rooftop solar market is helping reduce the energy burden carried by utilities.

Plus, more improvements in energy efficiency measures leads PG&E to expect that demand will fall by 2,000 gigawatt-hours by 2025. It takes about 6,000 gigawatt-hours to power 1 million homes for a year in California.

“We’re not replacing every megawatt hour because we’re shaping the energy,” Strauss said, “and we’re using energy efficiency and renewables.”

PG&E’s proposal to shut down Diablo Canyon came with the backing of a number of environmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Environment California, who signed off on the deal June 21.

“We’re not waiting for any more technological breakthroughs,” said Dan Jacobson, legislative director for Environment California. “We have the smarts with solar and wind and geothermal and efficiency to get to 100 percent renewables. We can get there.”

Solar and wind energy are plagued by intermittency — that is, the ability to generate power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing — and utilities across the country have increasingly turned to natural gas as their source for consistent, baseload power.

Largely due to the practice of hydraulic fracturing — the process that sends highly-pressurized liquids into the ground to break through rock formations — natural gas is abundant, which makes it inexpensive, at least in the past seven years.

In 2011, the California Energy Commission (CEC) said 18.2 percent of the state’s power generation came from nuclear energy.

But when the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station closed in January 2012, nuclear’s share of in-state power generation immediately dropped to 9.3 percent.

In the same time frame, natural gas use in California jumped from 45.4 percent to 61.1 percent.

Shellenberger’s group estimates a Diablo shutdown will increase the share of natural gas in California’s energy mix to about 70 percent.

“That’s an extremely high and dangerous level of dependence on any fuel, much less one that, when you look at 40 years of natural gas prices, is famous for having price spikes that can cause significant problems to the economy and significant energy shortages,” Shellenberger said.

But Strauss said that unlike San Onofre, which shut down quickly after leaking steam generator tubes were discovered, Diablo Canyon is not scheduled to close for another nine years.


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