No, Diablo’s closure will not derail greenhouse gas reduction

By Andrew Christie, Chapter Director

It seems a week does not go by without a local nuclear power fan popping up with a letter to the editor (or a California Assemblyman popping up with a bill) that attempts to pull the retirement of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant back by its tail-feathers.

Invariably appearing in their topline arguments is a variation on the claim “this action will significantly increase our use of natural gas,” rendering the state unable to meet its ambitious GHG reduction goals.

This 20th-century talking point, beloved of nuclear advocates lo these many years, needs to be viewed against present reality. A choice to build more gas-fired power plants to meet energy demand used to be about technology. Now it’s about policy and effective lobbying by the oil and gas industry. If your state is still doing that, it’s not because it has to; it’s because it enjoys doing business as usual.

But we live in California, and the new reality was on display in last year’s announced retirement of three Southern California gas plants. Community opposition and the declining cost of clean energy did them in. Those retirements are part of a statewide trend of gas plant closures and scrapping of plans for new ones in favor of "preferred resources," aka distributed energy resources (DERs) as designated by the state of California: renewable energy, efficiency measures, demand response (incentivizing reduction in electric use by customers in response to peak demand), and energy storage.

Per Southern California Edison: “In the past, when demand for electricity increased, utility companies, including us, built new carbon-emitting power plants. Now, with our Preferred Resources Pilot (PRP), we are testing the use of preferred resources to potentially reduce or eliminate the need for new gas-fired plants in the area.”

Its Aug. 2019 report on the pilot program concluded: “SCE initiated its PRP to validate the State’s DER performance assumptions that a portfolio of DERs could perform similar to a large gas-fired power plant, while ensuring reliable and affordable energy delivery. The learnings here are significant – validating that DERs can be relied upon in appropriate circumstances to serve grid needs and support California’s important environmental goals. It also provides insights into how to incorporate DERs across SCE’s service territory.”

In 2016, Robert Freehling, vice president of research for Local Power, crunching the emissions numbers on the current and pending closures of San Onofre and Diablo Canyon, wrote: “The retiring nuclear power plants only cause modest and temporary fluctuations [in the growth of preferred resources] in comparison with the much larger scale of the state's clean energy programs. Renewable energy and energy efficiency programs add up to a total of 200,000 to 250,000 gigawatt-hours per year by 2030, compared to 18,000 gigawatt-hours lost from each of the nuclear plants. In other words, the state's existing clean energy programs are about six times larger than the two nuclear plants combined.” 

Freehling’s calculations did not include the requirement in the agreement to retire Diablo that PG&E shall procure 2,000 GWh of renewable energy and 2,000 GWh of efficiency programs through 2030.

The year after Freehling wrote that analysis, Patrick Lee, a vice president with Sempra Energy, one of the nation’s largest utilities, said at a 2017 energy conference sponsored by the UC San Diego Institute of the Americas: “I am speaking with confidence now. We have a solution now to adjust the intermittency of solar and wind energy that is no longer a technology challenge. Now it is an economic decision. So installing a base-load power plant is no longer your only option. You can now look at solar, wind and storage as alternatives, and still be able to manage the reliability of the grid.”

And that guy builds gas-fired power plants.