The first indication I had of the agreement to destroy Diablo Canyon in the prime of its life came from a press release issued by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It stated that they had signed a deal with PG&E, IBEW local 1245, the Coalition of California Utility Employees, Friends of the Earth, Environment California, and the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility.
There is an implied quid pro quo. The groups will support PG&E’s request for an extension from the California Lands Commission of its land use permit that allows access to ocean cooling water at the Commission’s June 28 meeting. In return, PG&E will agree to withdraw its 20-year license extension application at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Instead, it will aim to retire the two-unit site when its current licenses expire in 2024 and 2025.
The press release claims that the electricity produced by the plant will be replaced with a combination of wind, solar, and “energy efficiency.”
“Energy efficiency and clean renewable energy from the wind and sun can replace aging nuclear plants — and this proves it. The key is taking the time to plan. Nuclear power versus fossil fuels is a false choice based on yesterday’s options,” said NRDC President Rhea Suh.
That’s a deceptive fig leaf; it is physically impossible for wind, solar and energy efficiency to replace the steady production of a nuclear power plant. Producing the same total number of kilowatt-hours each year is not the same as producing the same kilowatt-hours on a minute by minute, hour by hour or day by day basis.
Electricity is a product that most efficiently produced at the instant that it is used. It is possible to store a small amount, but both the act of storing power and getting power out of its storage system result in a substantial, unrecoverable loss of energy. Round trip efficiency is often less than 50% and rarely better than 80%.
Even if enough wind, solar and energy efficiency projects are started and come on line in California before 2025 to produce an additional 17-18 billion kilowatt-hours per year over what is already in place and planned, any logical, disinterested observer should wonder why the huge sums and enormous physical effort that would be invested in those new projects will end up being devoted to treading water in terms of CO2 emissions.
If there is the potential to add that much capacity, why not use it to close dirtier facilities? As of 2014, 45% of California’s electricity came from either burning natural gas in state or from importing coal fired electricity from out of state.
It’s worth noting that as of 2014, all of the wind and solar infrastructure that has been erected in California since the 1970s managed to produce a total of 23 billion kilowatt-hours, which is only 30% more than what the single Diablo Canyon power plant produced during the same year.
Ralph Cavanagh, the Executive Director of the NRDC, attempted to explain why his organization preferred to replace the emission free output of Diablo Canyon over replacing the much dirtier forms of power generation.
“Giant baseload nuclear power plants like Diablo Canyon cannot easily be taken offline or ramped up and down as system needs change, which obstructs the integration of renewable resources with variable output into the electricity grid. This worsening problem is forcing the California grid operator to shut down low-cost renewable generation that could otherwise be used productively.”
Apparently, NRDC prefers to make room for unreliable power generators and to support the marketing efforts of companies that sell wind turbines and solar panels even in situations where they risk destabilizing the grid and forcing reliable generators into uneconomic and energy inefficient modes of operation.
The kinds of natural gas power plants that can rapidly ramp up and down are not the highly efficient natural gas plants that produce 40% of the CO2 produced by coal. They are inefficient, simple cycle plants that produce closer to 60% of the CO2 produced by a modern coal plant. Ramping them up and down is a bit like stop and start driving; it consumes more fuel per useful unit of power. It also increases wear and adds to maintenance costs.
I contacted Heather Matteson, one of the founders of Mothers For Nuclear, a group that has been furiously organizing people that recognize Diablo Canyon’s value as a safe, well-run, emission-free power source that has many decades worth of useful life left in it. Here is her reaction to the announcement.
This is what we expected. We received a company wide announcement this morning that we won’t relicense. The timing is strategic for them, which is also fine.
This is a wake up call for the state. We will use it to drive home the seriousness of this issue for our energy future.
A close read of the deal makes is abundantly clear why PG&E agreed to sign it. If the deal, as signed, is approved by the California Public Utility Commission, PG&E will end up in a no-lose situation. They will be allowed to operate Diablo Canyon until its full cost has been recovered and all available depreciation deductions have been claimed.
In order to maintain electricity deliveries over its monopoly transmission and distribution network, PG&E will receive full cost recovery plus its normally allowed profit margins on all purchased power or “energy efficiency” investments. The deal proposal provides a rate base treatment that is described as a “non-bypassable” fair share of the cost for all grid-connected customers.
This is an important topic of conversation as people recognize the potential impact of allowing a small group of financially motivated parties to implement an agreement with such widespread impacts on the rest of the residents of a large, heavily-populated, economically-active, environmentally-concerned state populated with a substantial number of prosperous, mobile people who are fascinated by electric automobiles.
A version of the above article was published under the headline of NRDC Announces PG&E Has Agreed To Kill Diablo Canyon. It is reprinted here with permission.