FYI, SF Chronicle Op Ed: No, California doesn’t need Diablo Canyon to keep the lights on

San Francisco Chronicle Op-ed
August 25, 2022
Amory Lovins and Ed Smeloff
Aug. 25, 2022
Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to keep Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant open for 10 years beyond their planned closure.
Michael Mariant/Associated Press 2008

Under the past three governors, California has worked on mapping out a clear pathway to zeroing out greenhouse gases in the world’s fifth largest economy. Meeting this ambitious goal in a way that does not jeopardize electric reliability while maintaining reasonable costs across California’s economy has been the work of energy planners and economists both inside and outside of state government for the past 15 years.

But a hasty push from Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to extend the operations of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant may jeopardize years of planning and add huge costs and risks.

In 2016, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. put forward a plan to the California Public Utilities Commission to retire the two Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors at the expiration of their operating licenses in 2024 and 2025. The plan was devised in a very deliberate and analytical way, involving diverse stakeholders — including a nearly unanimous state Legislature just four years ago.

The plan anticipated that with nearly a 10-year runway, the state would be able to develop new power resources that would carry California forward into a more sustainable future.

California has made good progress in building new clean reliable power sources. During the heat wave last week, for example, the California Independent System Operator, which manages the operation of the state’s transmission system, dispatched over 2,800 megawatts of battery-stored power. That was 25% more than the 2,256-megawatt maximum capability of the Diablo Canyon reactors. California’s utilities and other energy providers are now entering into contracts to add 10,000 more megawatts of battery storage to the grid by summer of 2025. If California follows through on its commitments, the Diablo Canyon plant will not be needed to ensure Californians reliable power beyond 2025.

But beyond not being needed for reliability, the continued use of the plant poses another issue: It will get in the way of the efficient overall operation of the regional power grid. The plant lacks the ability to meet the fluctuating power requirements of the state at any given moment. That’s not true with battery-stored power, which can be raised and lowered as needed. Diablo Canyon can’t do that; its energy output must be used the instant it is generated.

The state’s solar power plants already produce seven times as much electricity as Diablo Canyon during the midday, according to the California Energy Commission. That amount could grow to as much as 15 times by the end of the decade to keep California on its zero-carbon target.

Maintaining the operation of an inflexible nuclear power plant when there is abundant solar and wind energy creates an energy redundancy. Most likely it means that the solar and wind energy will be wasted, since the nuclear power plant is not capable of ramping up or down quickly. The result: a big waste of taxpayer dollars and a less competitive California economy.

Extending the operating license of a nuclear power plant is a complex process that typically begins at least five years before its expiration date. Documenting the necessary improvements at the plant will likely require millions of hours of work by PG&E employees and consultants — which is the reason the governor is asking the Legislature to authorize a $1.4 billion forgivable loan during the last week of the legislative session.

Given that there was no plan in place to extend the operation of the plant, it is certainly possible that these funds could all be spent only to discover that the plant has significant flaws that either prevent the operating license from being extended or require substantial additional capital expenditures.

Rather than putting so many eggs in one fragile basket, California should focus on further developing its diverse portfolio of proven, low-cost resources focused on renewables and on efficient and timely use of electricity. Because these resources cost less and last far longer than running Diablo Canyon, they will avoid more carbon emissions with greater certainty. The California Assembly is on the right track in putting together a package of incentives that focuses on the long-term future while meeting shorter-term needs.

The vast amount of taxpayer money proposed for the Diablo Canyon extension very likely could be put at risk by events outside California’s control. Moreover, the sudden decision to rely on the nuclear plant for another 10 years will upset all of the careful planning done by the California Public Utilities Commission in its complex integrated resource modeling and by the California Independent System Operator in its transmission reliability studies. Years of work by these agencies would have to start anew. No state agency requested Diablo Canyon extension. No utility proposed it — not even its owner, PG&E, in its June 2022 plan. The wise course is to keep calm and carry on.

Two California utilities, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District and Southern California Edison, shut down nuclear power plants before the end of their operating licenses because of increasing costs and diminishing performance. Neither utility has had any regrets. Instead, the decision to close these facilities opened up new possibilities that have benefited their customers and the economy.

All major decisions have opportunity costs. Choosing one path closes off others. But one thing is certain: Hastily reversing Diablo Canyon’s closure without any significant analysis or public oversight is a costly recipe for regret.

Physicist Amory Lovins is an adjunct professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford and has advised major firms and governments. Ed Smeloff has worked in the energy industry for 25 years, including as a board member of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.