In June, utility Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) announced a deal with labor unions and leading environmental organizations to phase out the Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DCPP), the last operating nuclear energy facility in California. The joint proposal would increase investment in energy efficiency, renewables and storage beyond current state mandates while closing the nuclear plant by 2025.
The other parties in the joint agreement were the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1245, the Coalition of California Utility Employees, Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Environment California, and the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility. Representatives of the environmental groups say the agreement means the end of nuclear in California, more opportunities for renewables, and even a chance for California to set an example for other states to follow.
Damon Moglen, senior strategic advisor for Friends of the Earth’s climate and energy program, says environmental groups have been trying for years to get PG&E to close the nuclear facility because of safety issues, and now the utility is closing DCPP for economic reasons.
“The nuclear industry was saying renewables are not replacing nuclear, but that’s wrong all over the world,” he says. “What’s striking about this agreement is you have a multibillion-dollar utility that has run a nuclear plant for more than 40 years saying it is cheaper to shut down the nuke facility and replace it with renewable energy and storage.”
Moglen points out that phasing out DCPP will help the growth of renewables, as well as grid modernization. He says that, as a base load generator, the nuclear plant was obstructing solar and wind power. Now, there is an opportunity to replace the base load generator with the more flexible demand-response smart grid. “Base load is a thing of the past,” he states.
California can be on the forefront of energy policy. “I think this will provide a blueprint for replacing dirty, dangerous nuclear and coal around the country,” says Moglen. “This is a new chapter in the book of breakthroughs in terms of energy policy. People will say, ‘If they can do it in California, we can do it here.'”
In fact, he says, solar and wind are replacing nuclear power all over the world. “We are solving a 20th-century problem with a 21st-century solution – solving what I consider to be a disaster in technology, which is nuclear,” he says.
Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at the NRDC, says one important aspect of the joint proposal is that the 17,000 GWh that DCPP currently produces each year will not be replaced with natural gas or other fossil fuels.
“What was crucial here was making sure that the retirement of Diablo Canyon, which everyone could see was inevitable, is handled in a way consistent with California’s renewable portfolio standard,” he says.
The proposal includes three stages of clean energy resource procurement, and the first will begin in 2018. The joint proposal does not detail exactly where the replacement energy will come from, but it is likely that solar will play a large role. In a post on the NRDC website, Cavanagh wrote that distributed generation, such as rooftop solar, already contributes the equivalent of about half of what Diablo Canyon does annually.
Also, it helps that there will be less curtailment of renewables by the always-on nuclear.
“In the afternoons, when solar generation surges, what’s happening is you get into overgeneration. You can’t curtail rooftop solar and you can’t control nuclear, so you have to curtail solar and wind out in the desert. We will get more renewable energy from those sources,” Cavanagh explains.
Under the proposal, PG&E has agreed to not seek renewal of DCPP’s operating licenses but keep the plant open until the last license expires in 2025. In its announcement, PG&E noted that the agreement is contingent on certain regulatory approvals. One has already occurred: In July, the State Lands Commission approved the utility’s subtidal leases, which will allow the utility to draw cooling water from the ocean for the nuclear plant. The next step, Cavanagh says, is to present the proposal to the California Public Utilities Commission. Other parties will get involved, too, such as the California Independent System Operator.
“I am optimistic because of the diversity of support and economics of the proposal are very compelling,” he says. “This is an inspiring model for the electricity sector. The problem is not limited to northern California.”
Dan Jacobson, state director of Environment California, says closing DCPP will have another positive result.
“More solar and wind in California means a better-skilled workforce that can put up more clean energy,” he says, adding that there is a need to push more clean energy programs and projects in California. “This will be done in the legislature and city halls around the state.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer based in Denver.
Photo of the Diablo Canyon Power Plant courtesy of PG&E