California looks toward renewable future amid contentious power plant decisions

California officials have garnered criticism in recent months over their decisions to prolong the lifespans of natural gas and nuclear facilities despite the state’s pledges to shift to cleaner energy.

Lawmakers have argued the moves are part of a critical balancing act between California’s ambitious renewable energy goals and the need to keep homes heated and powered.

But many scientists and environmental advocates believe this step is unnecessary — and that the state would succeed in providing ample power and attaining its goals without keeping such plants open.

“We have abundant renewable clean energy resources,” Laura Deehan, state director for Environment California, told The Hill. “And in fact, with the current technology, we have the ability to build a much more resilient electricity grid.”

Controversial power plant extensions

Earlier this month, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted unanimously in favor of increasing the capacity of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility — a site that was also home to the nation’s biggest methane leak in 2015. The CPUC maintained that doing so served “to guard ratepayers from the type of natural gas price spikes that occurred last winter.”

And about a year before that, state lawmakers — with the governor’s support — passed legislation seeking to extend the shelf life of the decades-old Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant. While nuclear power plants do not generate greenhouse gases, they produce a small amount of radioactive waste.

Keeping the Diablo site open, officials contended, could help tide the state over as it transitions to an entirely renewable energy economy.

The decisions appeared to run counter to climate goals the state has set over the past five years. 

California committed in 2018 to achieving a 100 percent renewable energy-powered grid by 2045, per legislation signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) followed up last year with interim targets that aim for 90 percent renewable energy by 2035 and 95 percent by 2040. Separate legislation, meanwhile, urged carbon neutrality no later than 2045, while also setting an 85 percent emissions reduction target for that year, in comparison to 1990 levels.

The move to expand the Aliso Canyon facility’s capacity was also perceived as an about-face from Newsom’s campaign promises in 2018 — at which time the then-lieutenant governor told a reporter he was “fully committed” to shutting down the site entirely.

The main ingredient of natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas that is much more potent than carbon dioxide. The October 2015 leak at the Aliso Canyon facility, which was only controlled in February 2016, forced more than 8,000 households to temporarily relocate.

Responding to the CPUC’s decision, Newsom’s deputy press secretary at the time stressed that although the governor appreciates the agency’s efforts to preserve energy reliability, he continues to advocate for the facility’s permanent closure.

Deehan expressed her disappointment in seeing these gas plants getting extensions, even more so because they are located “in places that have a history of environmental disasters.”

“To me, that just underscores the urgency of moving even faster towards our clean energy goals,” she said.

Another recent and contentious energy-related move involved the passage of legislation last fall seeking to extend operations until 2030 of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, located along California’s Central Coast.

Licenses for the site’s two reactors were set to expire in November 2024 and August 2025, respectively, and Pacific Gas and Electric previously announced plans to decommission them at that point.

About six months after the legislation’s passage, however, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted an exemption allowing the facility to operate under its current licenses while the agency considers a renewal that could last up to 20 years.

While Newsom and state legislators have backed the extension as a reliable bridge to support California’s clean energy transition, environmental groups have been vocal in their opposition to the plans.

Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering, attributed the decision to the “lobbying power of the nuclear industry and their advocates.”

The potential of renewables

Experts like Jacobson maintain keeping the power plants online is unneeded and could be counterproductive.

“There are a lot of renewable energy projects in the queue in California,” Jacobson told The Hill.

“Many of them are just slowed by either transmission barriers or red tape,” he said. “They’re just backed up in terms of permitting approvals.”

Jacobson cited a variety of solar, geothermal, wind, hydroelectric and battery storage projects in the pipeline, stressing that “there’s really no reason California can’t get to like 80 percent renewables by 2030 or even 2027.”

From a technical perspective, he expressed confidence that California would have no problem meeting its renewable energy targets.

He pointed to the state putting 5 gigawatts of batteries on the grid in the past few years as an example of its ability to fulfill these goals, adding that aside from during summer, California’s peak energy demand is about 25 gigawatts.

Currently, solar energy fulfills almost all the state’s daytime electricity needs, aside from in the summer, when natural gas is also used, according to Jacobson.

“At night, so when the solar goes down, then you have hydro, wind, geothermal, which is pretty constant,” he said, noting that batteries are also “kicking in” after sunset and before sunrise.

While Diablo Canyon is still open, it is providing a peak supply of only 2.3 gigawatts — half the amount that batteries are supplying, Jacobson added.

“So Diablo Canyon’s not necessary really,” he said.

Jacobson took that notion one step further by asserting Diablo Canyon’s continued operation is blocking further offshore wind development.

“Diablo Canyon has this huge transmission line that’s going to the coast right there,” he said. “Basically, Diablo Canyon is hogging that line — slowing the ability of offshore wind to be built off the coast of central California.”

The California coastal environment, Deehan added, is among “the places in the world where the wind blows harder and faster than anywhere else — really high potential for clean energy production there.”

A 2021 study co-authored by Jacobson suggested that deploying more offshore wind turbines could help avoid summer blackouts because wind speeds are the fastest during this season.

Acknowledging that offshore wind costs have recently spiked due to high interest rates, Jacobson expressed some concern about a possible slowdown in infrastructure deployment if the situation doesn’t resolve itself soon.

But on Thursday night, the California state Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1373, which would authorize the CPUC and the Department of Water Resources to purchase energy from offshore wind developers if it is signed into law by Newsom. 

“It’s about giving the state the power to buy that clean energy,” Deehan said. “And that way, they can order it up, which will then provide so much certainty for all the market forces, for the investors and the developers.”

As far as solar energy is concerned, Jacobson said this resource remains “pretty cheap” and that the cost of batteries — which can be installed quickly — has dropped significantly.

But the professor accused major utilities of “fighting tooth and nail to prevent people from putting solar on their roofs,” referring to a recent decision to weaken incentives for new installations.

“The fact that they’re pushing this nuclear while reducing residential solar benefits is just ridiculous,” he said.

‘Ahead of benchmarks’

While Jacobson reiterated his belief that California would have no trouble keeping houses powered and heated without the Aliso or Diablo extensions, he also highlighted the potential of citizen demand-response in emergency situations.

One day last year when there was a chance the grid could have failed, Newsom made an announcement asking people to stop using energy, Jacobson recalled.

“And amazingly, everybody did,” he said. “This was actually a case of demand-response where they didn’t even need financial incentives.”

Jacobson touted the ability of the demand side to “control the grid,” while deeming the idea that the grid would fail with more renewables “complete nonsense.” 

Lobbying action against the deployment of renewables, he recognized, could slow down the state’s charge to meet its clean energy targets.

“But it’s not stopping it, it’s not reversing it,” he said. “If anything, it’s just slowing it down a little bit from reaching the goal.”

There’s no technical reason the state can’t achieve its ambitions even earlier, with all the renewable energy projects that are waiting in the queue, Jacobson argued.

“If everything was just approved today, you could reach the goal much faster,” he added.

Deehan echoed these sentiments, emphasizing that California is not at all off track in terms of its climate commitments.

“We’re ahead of benchmarks every single time in reaching all of our clean energy goals,” she said. “And the challenge is, can we just speed up those goals?”

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