San Onofre Replacement Shows Green Absurdity

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On June 7, 2013, Southern California Edison announced it would permanently close Units 2 and 3 of its San Onofre nuclear plant, located on the Pacific coast between Los Angeles and San Diego. Physical problems at the plant, which serves customers of both Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, had become too expensive for its operator. But what happens when 2,200 megawatts of around-the-clock generation goes offline near two major metro areas? What replaces that generation capacity? The answers chosen by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), urged on by green groups, reveals a great deal about where energy discussions are headed.

Just days ago, the CPUC announced that it would allow Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to replace the capacity from San Onofre with a few select alternatives between now and 2022. These alternatives include between 300 and 900 megawatts from new gas-fired power and a required 575 megawatts from “preferred sources” such as renewables, energy efficiency, demand response, and energy storage. In short, the CPUC is allowing the utilities to replace some of its lost capacity with other generation sources; the rest must come from intermittent sources and from making customers make do with less.

You’d think environmental groups would welcome that outcome. Not so fast. The Sierra Club held a protest outside the headquarters of Southern California Edison, citing their concerns that replacing carbon-free nuclear with carbon-emitting gas would only add to the area’s carbon emissions. Maybe the Sierra Club should have thought of that before it decided to oppose nuclear power in principle.

Meanwhile, the Vote Solar Initiative has also protested the CPUC’s decision, arguing that regulators are underestimating the impact of more solar and additional energy efficiency. They say those resources could make building more gas-fired generation unnecessary. The problem is that those responsible for keeping the California grid reliable have found time and again that such resources don’t work in real-world situations the way green advocates wish they did.

“We all wish we could replace these resources with 100 percent preferred resources. But the simple reality is that no one in the world has been able to manage a complex grid like we have in Southern California without some fast-responding gas resources,” explains CPUC Commissioner Peter Florio.

Florio also points out that whatever gas-fired generation might be built between now and 2022 will be countered by the closure of gas-fired power plants brought on by California’s “once-through” cooling requirements. Some gas plants might be added, but more will be closed. The new ones will be cleaner, too. Environmentalists in California should be glad about that, but they aren’t.

This type of absurdity from groups like the Sierra Club is nothing new. Just this past December, the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club touted a poll that showed most of Georgia Power Company’s customers were against a proposed rate increase of about $8 per month, phased in between now and 2016. Why was the rate increase necessary? Because of new environmental regulations that the Sierra Club supported. It turns out that the Sierra Club wanted the regulations, just not the inevitable consequences. They want the public to forget that it was their organization’s actions that helped create the problem.

That’s what is happening in California. The Sierra Club has spent four decades opposing nuclear power. They’ve always been opposed to coal. Now they are against natural gas, too. They’ve painted their energy policy into a corner where only fringe resources and forced consumer consumption are acceptable. They rail about climate change, but oppose the only carbon-free source of power that works all the time in southern California. They insist solar power is the answer, when their state’s regulators provide real-world evidence that shows the opposite.

The absurdity taking place in California will soon be a problem for everyone. Coal-fired plants continue to shut down due to new federal rules. By 2034, a quarter of the nation’s nuclear reactors will have reached the 60-year lifespan prescribed by federal regulators. That’s closer than we think. It’s time for lawmakers to start searching for real answers, because it’s clear that the Sierra Club doesn’t have them.