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A Bright Spot for Diablo Canyon
CA Governor Gavin Newsom appears to be serious about saving CA's last nuclear plant, Diablo Canyon, originally scheduled to begin the shutdown process in 2024 which mostly started to a water use regulation that essentially designated the plants output water temperature to be too high for the local marine population. There were also seismic concerns, but these were largely addressed.
This of course isn’t entirely news - Newsom has been courted by desires to keep open Diablo Canyon for some time. Back in April in an interview with the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board (same ones who wrote this dribble1), Newsom indicated CA’s interest in applying for part of the 6-billion dollars in funding offered by the Biden Administration via the Department of Energy. Noted pro-nuclear advocate, former CA Independent Gubernatorial Primary Candidate, and author Michael Shellenberger wrote then, happily, that Diablo Canyon was “saved.”
Turns out, Newsom is continuing to wake up to the realities of CA’s ever increasingly unreliable electrical energy grid and somewhat acknowledges the role Diablo Canyon has in supplying CA with clean power. In any case, last week his administration created draft legislation with a $1.4 billion loan to plant owner Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) to postpone the shutdown for another five to ten years.
While many are indeed celebrating what appears to be one more step towards a victory for the continued operation of Diablo Canyon, there’s more to the story.
Here’s just a small excerpt from the draft:
(a) The impacts of climate change are occuring sooner and with greater intensity and frequency than anticipated, causing unprecedented stress on California’s energy system. These impacts are simultaneously driving higher demand as more intense and frequent heat waves hit California and the Western region and reducing supply as drought conditions impact hydropower production and fires threaten electrical infrastructure.
This is just the continued “Climate Crisis” narrative we’ve been peppered with in the past few years. But it’s also not completely incorrect. Every heat wave threatens the grid and so does every year the drought continues. But part of being able to overcome such adversities is for us to use our ingenuity as humans to master the climate.
(b) The Diablo Canyon powerplant currently supplies approximately 17 percent of California’s zero-carbon electricity supply and 8.6 percent of California’s total electricity supply. The Diablo Canyon powerplant’s two units are scheduled to be retired in 2024 and 2025.
The wording in the legislation points out that Diablo Canyon’s energy generation is carbon-free but leaves out other important contributions the plant makes.
Doomberg elaborates on part of this:
The Diablo Canyon Power Plant has been cranking out carbon-free electricity for almost 40 years. It supplies nearly 8% of the state’s total power needs and 10% of what it produces for itself (this might come as a shock to our readers, but California suffers from extreme NIMBY Syndrome, and prefers to import roughly a quarter of its electricity needs from other states). As a share of the state’s baseload power, Diablo is an even more critical asset delivering approximately 20% of the state’s needs.
This draft legislation (nor most of the press pieces) makes no mention of baseload power or CA’s dependence on imports.
Why is this important?
Baseload power is the amount of power required to meet minimum demand, this includes every water and wastewater pump, every traffic signal, every refrigerator at either shops or your home, and medical equipment in hospitals to name a few. Baseload power must always be available at all times. The most notable energy sources that can provide adequate baseload power are coal, natural gas, hydroelectric, geothermal, and of course nuclear. The 24/7/365 nature of baseload generation also makes them much more economical to run in the long term and since CA's energy mandates demand “carbon-free” sources, we're left practically only with nuclear energy to provide this power unless we want to keep using natural gas powered generation. This is precisely why the 20% figure Doomberg listed above often gets left out of nearly every other discussion out there is so important. It’s also either a massive blind spot or intentionally ignored by much of the renewables crowd.
The Green Chicken also nails it on CA’s inability due to it being the home of extreme NIMBYISM to build electrical generation sources in state. To be clear, Coastal Californians blabber about wanting wind and solar and that’s true so long as they can’t see it within their own backyards. That applies conventional sources of energy as well. And they’re largely fortunate since there isn’t space in the urban areas to build any of these facilities, especially in the case of wind and solar farms (minus small-scale rooftop units) whose footprints are several hundreds, of not thousands of acres in size.
To give an idea of the scale of a nuclear facility versus say CA’s most significant source of renewables - solar and wind. Diablo Canyon occupies 12 acres for the plant itself compare that to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay which is almost double the size at 22.5 acres. Sempra Generation's Copper Mountain Solar Facility occupies 4,000 acres. Diablo's nameplate (e.g. theoretical maximum) capacity is 2256 MW with a capacity factor (percentage of the time the plant is generating) sitting in the high 80's % to low 90's %.
Copper Mountain's nameplate capacity is 802 MW, with a capacity factor of roughly 30 %, which is typical for solar. The largest wind farm in the US is the Alta Wind Energy Center in Kern County which is so large Wikipedia cites its footprint in square kilometers but converted to acres is over 32,000 acres. Alta’s nameplate capacity is 1550 MW with a 23.5% capacity factor.
That’s a lot of numbers I just threw out to say the following: nuclear energy overwhelmingly takes up less space, produces a significant greater amount of power at the majority of the time it’s operating. Rain, sun, storm, etc. Doesn’t matter. Nuclear is there.
Diablo Canyon is here today.
So, in all seriousness how much of this additional wind or solar capacity do they expect to build and where to account for the loss of Diablo Canyon? That’s a monumental task on its own, but we’re faced with more issues as we currently try to work towards that goal.
Back to the draft legislation:
(c) Because of supply chain disruptions, the impact of tariff disputes, and other delays in installation of new clean energy generation and storage systems, including solar and wind projects with battery storage, there is substantial risk that insufficient new clean energy supplies will be online in time to ensure electricity system reliability when the Diablo Canyon powerplant is scheduled to be decommissioned. If the Diablo Canyon powerplant’s operations are not extended, increased energy production from greenhouse-gas-emitting sources will result, exacerbating the climate impacts already stressing California’s energy system, and the threat to overall energy reliability in the state will be enhanced
Ah, here we get to an interesting admittance.
The infamous supply chain issues that have snagged everything from toilet paper, tampons, washing machines, chips, and of course nearly every material required for any part of the renewable energy transition revolution. Commodity prices are also through the roof, and many of the raw materials and the majority of the manufacturing facilities for wind, solar, and even batteries come from either places that are not terribly friendly to the US (and have been made worse with the Russian invasion on Ukraine) or are facing notable energy issues of their own (i.e. Europe). The majority of the world’s polysilicon mining and production for example is in China, and has notorious human rights abuses including using slavery and much of this production is powered by coal plants which China continues to build and scale up to this day. So, what we’re really doing is just shifting our emissions.
The Biden Administration renewed Trump’s solar tariffs ban earlier this year only to somewhat contradict themselves this past June by declaring such tariffs a national security threat. This was in part supposedly influenced by a small CA-based so-called “boutique” solar firm interested in protecting themselves from competition. The recent use of the Defense Production Act via Executive Order and the about to be signed into law Inflation Reduction Act are both supposed to address issues (lmao, doubtful) with the domestic solar industry and renewables in general but it remains to be seen. Politicians are all big on promises based on platitudes after all.
Any energy transition California attempts to make subjects themselves to competition from other jurisdictions attempting to do the same. The costs of these projects if things keep going the way they are in a geopolitical sense will continue to skyrocket.
We arrive at the last piece of the draft legislation to cover:
(d) Continued operations of the Diablo Canyon powerplant for an additional five to ten years beyond 2024-25 is therefore critical to ensure statewide energy system reliability and to minimize the emissions of greenhouse gasses while additional renewable energy resources come online, until those new renewable energy resources are adequate to meet demand. Accordingly, it is the policy of the Legislature that extending the Diablo Canyon powerplant’s operations for a renewed license term is prudent, cost-effective, and in the best interests of all California electricity customers.
Diablo Canyon, if it continues to be managed and operated correctly has a much longer lifespan than this additional five to ten years.
But when it does close, we can most likely expect a surge in the increase in carbon emissions much like we faced after the 2012 closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) north of San Diego. That figure within the first year of closure was estimated to result in the emissions of 11 million MT of CO2e. Such a fact makes the San Diego Climate Action Plan’s carbon emissions reduction demands seem even more absurd.
If CA is going to be a role model for a human and planet flourishing future, it starts with a serious embrace of nuclear energy for all its benefits, this starts with saving Diablo Canyon for sure and also embracing the construction of additional nuclear facilities. This is becoming easier; with the advent of Small Modular Reactor Designs (SMRs) seeing some regulatory approval and the advent of projects such as TerraPower’s Natrium Reactor project in Wyoming, there’s a greater potential for nuclear past the large and more difficult to site projects like Diablo Canyon. Right now there are no solid plans to build addition nuclear in CA though, so we must dream on.
And unfortunately, California’s Energy war on the poor will continue largely thanks to the domination of Newsom’s politics and while Newsom deserves some rare credit for getting something right, California’s most vulnerable will likely continue to suffer, Climate Crisis and Diablo Canyon closure, or not.