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Will California Go Green or Go Gas?

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When one of California’s two nuclear plants–the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS)–unexpectedly closed last year because of damage to its steam tubes, many clean energy advocates including UCS hoped that the state would replace much of that electricity with generation from renewable resources, as well as increased investments in other carbon-free energy resources, such as energy efficiency, demand response, and energy storage devices. Unfortunately, plans are now in the works to replace most of the SONGS electricity with a new natural gas plant, without a process that gives clean energy resources a chance to compete.

San Onofre's 2.3 GW of nuclear power generation capacity must be replaced with alternative resources. Photo: Luke Jones

San Onofre’s 2.3 GW of nuclear power generation capacity must be replaced with alternative resources. Photo: Luke Jones

San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) recently filed a plan with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) that contained details on how they would replace the SONGS power. The plan needed to conform to the guidelines set forth by the CPUC (details start on page 141 of the Commission’s decision), which allowed SDG&E to procure up to 800 MW of electrical capacity. At least 200 MW of this must come from “preferred” (aka carbon-free) resources like renewables, energy efficiency, and storage, and the remaining 600 MW could be chosen through a competitive bidding process, although the CPUC said some of this energy could also be picked through a bilateral contract, which means a contract with one project, no competitive bidding.

Instead of allowing all power sources to submit bids in a competitive process for that remaining 600 MW, SDG&E filed an application on Monday to move forward on a contract to build a new natural gas power plant in the City of Carlsbad.

A natural gas power plant built today will continue to spew carbon into the atmosphere for another 30 or 40 years. Building a new plant in Carlsbad, or anywhere else for that matter, locks us into more carbon and air pollution, and the state should be doing everything it can to explore cleaner options before we make that commitment. Perhaps in the end the Carlsbad plant would have won the bid anyway, but we’ll never know because clean energy resources did not even have a chance to compete.

If you are like me, you are proud that California has been a leader in developing clean energy resources for decades. But you also know that to cut our carbon emissions and slow the pace of global warming, we need speed up our transition to clean energy and that continuing to approve new gas plants without strongly considering other options creates liabilities down the road. The CPUC should have been stronger in its direction to require SDG&E to give clean energy resources a chance to compete, and SDG&E should be listening to its consumers, who want to see more clean sources of power providing their electricity. This sentiment was reinforced when the Public Policy Institute of California released a survey on Wednesday demonstrating continued support among Californians for clean energy policies. Until the state and the CPUC forces our utilities to consider clean energy resources when it really matters (not just when it sounds nice), we’ll just end up getting a lot of hot air and new gas.

Posted in: Energy, Fossil Fuels, Global Warming Tags: , , ,

About the author: Laura Wisland is a senior energy analyst and an expert on California renewable energy policies. She holds a master’s degree in public policy. See Laura's full bio.

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  • Rod Coenen

    In the context of climate change the better option is to repair/reactivate SONGS just as the state of Ohio repaired Davis-Besse. We have exceeded the limit of benign CO2 levels. Wind/Solar do not have enough of what is demanded. As much as some may dislike nuclear, the alternatives are worse. Following restart of SONGS the best strategy is cooperation on development of Gen IV advanced nuclear such as MSR designed to use reprocessed spent fuel, followed by LFTR development for both grid and off-grid applications.

  • William Rodgers

    Maybe the CPUC and SDG&E are listening to the CA rate payers and consumers.

    The survey from PPIC that your article references indicates that public support for the 2011 law requiring more renewable sources of power to be supplied and used in CA drops from 76% to 46% when the question of cost is factored in.

    That is a 30 point drop in support when people learn they will have to pay more for renewable when they write those checks for their monthly utility bill.

    So an alternate view of the CPUC decision to allow SDG&E to use natural gas to replace SONGS is that CPUC IS listening to its base.

    Besides I thought the UCS position on natural gas was that it is a great bridge fuel. How is a bridge fuel to be used if that bridge is not allowed to be built? Considered me now confused with UCS’s position. So is UCS against nuclear, coal and NOW natural gas? Is wind and solar the only sources the UCS will approve? That doesn’t mesh with the formal position papers the UCS has previously published regarding natural gas.

    • http://www.ucsusa.org/about/staff/staff/laura-wisland.html Laura Wisland

      Hi William,

      Thanks for reading my blog and posting a comment. You are correct that the PPIC poll reports that support for the 33% RPS declines to 46% if that means that people have to pay more for their electricity. It’s not surprising to me that the public’s support declines if it can’t get something for free. Nobody likes to pay more for anything. But, the fact is that electricity rates in California are rising for a whole host of reasons, and our investments in renewables are only a very small part of that. Feel free to reach out again if you want more information on this. And, since California continues to pursue aggressive energy efficiency measures, our bills (which are ultimately what customers care about) have continued to stay low even as rates have increased.

      The point of my blog was not to condemn the Carlsbad plant, but rather the process being used to approve that contract. Given the transmission constraints in the area, a natural gas plant may be the right fit. What I object to is the CPUC telling SDG&E that they should conduct an open solicitation for electricity products to meet the needs of the area, but then allowing them to submit an application for a specific gas plant without any chance for clean energy resources to compete. It completely shuts down the conversation about whether we can replace that gas with renewables before it has even had a chance to begin.

      UCS’s position on natural gas is that it can be a great bridge fuel if the alternative is something worse, like coal, but we need to be careful about building too much of it. It’s still a fossil fuel, and in order to dramatically decarbonize our electricity system, we have to wean ourselves off all fossil fuels, including gas. Since California is well into phasing out coal completely, new natural gas plants are not replacing coal the way they are in other parts of the country. We just published a paper called Gas Ceiling: Assessing the Risks of Overreliance on Natural Gas for Electricity. I can’t insert a hyperlink in this message, but you should be able to easily find it online. The main message is that simply transitioning from a coal-based electricity system to a gas one is not going to cut it from a climate perspective. But that does not mean that gas will not continue to play an important role in our present and future system. However, if there are alternatives that can provide the same electric services, we should explore them before we make that financial commitment.

    • Laura Wisland

      Hi William,

      Thanks for reading my blog and posting a comment. You are correct that the PPIC poll reports that support for the 33% RPS declines to 46% if that means that people have to pay more for their electricity. It’s not surprising to me that the public’s support declines if it can’t get something for free. Nobody likes to pay more for anything. But, the fact is that electricity rates in California are rising for a whole host of reasons, and our investments in renewables are only a very small part of that. Feel free to reach out again if you want more information on this. And, since California continues to pursue aggressive energy efficiency measures, our bills (which are ultimately what customers care about) have continued to stay low even as rates have increased.

      The point of my blog was not to condemn the Carlsbad plant, but rather the process being used to approve that contract. Given the transmission constraints in the area, a natural gas plant may be the right fit. What I object to is the CPUC telling SDG&E that they should conduct an open solicitation for electricity products to meet the needs of the area, but then allowing them to submit an application for a specific gas plant without any chance for clean energy resources to compete. It completely shuts down the conversation about whether we can replace that gas with renewables before it has even had a chance to begin.

      UCS’s position on natural gas is that it can be a great bridge fuel if the alternative is something worse, like coal, but we need to be careful about building too much of it. It’s still a fossil fuel, and in order to dramatically decarbonize our electricity system, we have to wean ourselves off all fossil fuels, including gas. Since California is well into phasing out coal completely, new natural gas plants are not replacing coal the way they are in other parts of the country. We just published a paper called Gas Ceiling: Assessing the Risks of Overreliance on Natural Gas for Electricity. I can’t insert a hyperlink in this message, but you should be able to easily find it online. The main message is that simply transitioning from a coal-based electricity system to a gas one is not going to cut it from a climate perspective. But that does not mean that gas will not continue to play an important role in our present and future system. However, if there are alternatives that can provide the same electric services, we should explore them before we make that financial commitment.

      • Richard Solomon

        One of the reasons why carbon based energy generation is less expensive to consumers than renewables is that some of the costs of the former are borne by the consumer in other ways. Eg, the cost of increased healthcare services for those who suffer from asthma, etc due to more climate change related smog is paid for via increased medical insurance premiums. Ie, the consumer pays for it this way instead of via higher utility bills. Most people are blind to how some of these expenses are socialized while the profits for SCGE are privatized.

  • John Craft

    Also check out this free energy devices http://www.99freeenergydevices.com

  • stevek9

    SONGS was closed down for no good reason. Really a shame. The reason unreliables are not given a chance to compete … is because they can’t.

    • weightmark

      you are very misinformed about why the plant closed and it was the Utility company’s decision. There is a moratorium on building new nuclear plants due to lack of a solution with waste disposal. Also, these plants require huge amounts of water to prevent fires and catastrophic release of radiation to the atmosphere. We are in the midst of a drought which no one knows how long it will last.This plant is also near an earthquake fault and there is uncertainty as to how this plant would fair in a major earthquake.

      • Mercky Waters

        Wait Weightmark. Was SONGS built on the coast just so the workers can eat their lunches on the beach? To conflate fresh and salt water requirements; to intimate an imminent threat of fire; and to imply this plant is a more important earthquake risk than all manner of other infrastructure is grossly misinformed and/or intellectually dishonest. Laura Wisland’s excellent article does point out the long-term increase in emissions that will in-fact result from closing SONGS. Emissions increases in Gerrmany and Japan tell a similar story. In the interest of maintaining the life support system on which all earthlings depend, I sincerely request that the UCS re-evaluate nuclear energy as a separate issue from their legitimate concerns about nuclear weapons programs.

  • GRLCowan

    San Onofre had a minor plumbing problem and the operators, perhaps hoping to stay on the NRC’s good side, voluntarily shut it down.

    Had they kept it running, it would have continued to use $26 million a year worth of uranium. Replacing this with gas costs $450 million a year, and at an 18.75 percent royalty rate, that meant an additional $84 million a year for the federal government.

    So by seizing on this unnecessary shutdown and ruinously delaying permission to restart, the NRC did that government an $84-million-a-year favour.

    That government, it hardly needs saying, is its paymaster.

  • Hamlet

    This is just another example of how the CPUC is merely a lapdog of the investor owned utilities. It is disgraceful and when the California ratepayers finally discover how they are being hosed by the likes of SDG&E, in particular, there will be a revolt. But in the meantime at least the SDG&E senior executives will continue to be awarded lucrative stock options and bonuses that would shame a pro ball player.

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