Could Solar Power Ride to the Rescue in Southern California?

June 15, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

For decades, the twin domes of the San Onofre nuclear power plant, perched along the beach in Orange County, have been a landmark for anyone driving from L.A. to San Diego. The domes aren’t going anywhere, but on June 7, SoCal Edison voted to permanently shutter the plant, which has been closed for repairs since January 2012, when engineers discovered that hundreds of little cooling tubes were defective.

Cue the hand-wringing, as everyone in Southern California tries to figure out whether the A/C-hungry region can make it through a hot summer without rolling blackouts now that a plant that used to generate enough power for 1.4 million homes is offline. What’s going to replace the energy from San Onofre’s clean nuclear power plant?

The answer could be solar power: Utility-scale solar in California hit a 2,000-megawatt milestone on June 7, the same day SoCal Edison voted to shutter its nuclear plant. Last September, 1,000 megawatts was a breakthrough, but California’s solar capacity kept growing throughout the winter, and doubled in nine months. Don’t assume that the new solar power can be perfectly swapped out for the nuclear power, though; the nuclear plant was producing its 2,250 megawatts 24 hours a day, while the solar output is at its highest for only a few hours at a time.

Or maybe natural gas is the answer? The pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute says that it’s the unfortunate reality of closing San Onofre. Even assuming a lower carbon footprint than coal, natural gas will add eight million tons of carbon pollution, the equivalent of putting 1.6 million cars on the road. However, the natural gas plants the institute points to as a solution have either been built or are nearing completion, so it’s not quite fair to say that closing San Onofre determines whether they come online.

Political activist Cindy Asner thinks fears surrounding San Onofre’s closure have been overblown. She tells TakePart of a conversation with a SoCal Edison executive fretting about people who wouldn’t have air conditioning during the summer. “I was worried about Fukushima, and they were worried about air conditioning? It’s preposterous!” She points to American ingenuity: “during World War II, we were on rations, but the American people found a way.”

In its latest report, the federal Energy Information Administration shows two states with summer power concerns: California and Texas. Yes, that reliably coal-and-natural-gas-powered red state is at greater risk for rolling blackouts than California. Expect a disproportionate amount of media attention on California, though, as pro-nuclear folks lament the loss of another plant and anti-renewable energy folks complain that solar is unreliable.

Who’s going to pick up the tab for the plant closure?

SoCal Edison says it’s spent $500 million since January 2012 in buying replacement power. It estimates another $3 billion to first mothball, then—over decades—decommission the plant. Tearing down  San Onofre nuclear power plant will be a massive, pricey job—tons of highly radioactive fuel now stored in pools will have to cool before the rods can be moved to concrete pads outdoors, and an estimated three million pounds of spent fuel at San Onofre is so radioactive that no repository exists that can handle it, meaning it will have to remain in concrete casks on the coast for decades, if not indefinitely. Parts of the plant that are torn down would be shipped by rail, which may make nearby communities nervous. Edison has paid $2.7 billion into a state-mandated decommissioning fund, but costs can easily exceed that.

Does this end the regulatory woes?

Maybe not. Edison has told federal regulators that the tubes were a “like for like” repair. But in 2004, an Edison letter expressed concern about the same design flaw in the steam generators that ultimately popped up in the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) claims that Edison may have misled federal regulators about design changes in the new steam generators. Richard Mathews, a Los Angeles County Democratic activist who’s been tracking San Onofre for years, wonders if someone tried to sneak in a new tube design without getting the necessary review and approvals. “They lost that gamble when the new tubes failed. It is great that the reactors won’t be restarting with inadequate tubes, and hopefully it won’t be the Edison customers asked to pay for this apparent cheating.”

With additional reporting by Max Follmer.

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