Closure of Southern California nuke plant shouldn’t lead to blackouts in Northern California this summer, state says

by Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News

California’s electricity supplies will be tight this summer after utility officials in Southern California announced that they are permanently shutting down the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station — the state’s second-largest power plant and one of its only two nuclear plants. But blackouts like the ones that crippled California last decade aren’t likely, state officials said.

“We will have to have conservation messages out there and make sure people are aware of the situation,” said Steve Berberich, CEO of the California Independent System Operator in Sacramento, the agency that manages the state’s power grid. “But we feel pretty good that we can contend with this.”

Increased imports of electricity from out of state, along with upgrades to power lines and the construction of new natural gas, solar and wind plants in California in recent years, Berberich said, should make up for the loss of San Onofre’s 2,250 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 1.4 million homes.

Still, massive heat waves, unplanned outages at other power plants or wildfires that burn transmission lines could create problems.

Built on the northern San Diego County coast in 1968, the $2.1 billion San Onofre plant generated enough electricity to supply 5 percent of California’s peak demand. The surprise announcement of the plant’s demise is the latest example of the slow decline of nuclear power’s fortunes in California.

In the 1960s, utilities such as Pacific Gas & Electric drew up plans for nuclear plants up and down the coastline, cooled by sea water, to be built at Humboldt Bay, Bodega Bay, Davenport and other locations. However, concerns over construction costs, earthquake faults and accidents — from Three Mile Island in 1979 to the Fukushima, Japan, meltdown two years ago — led utilities and state leaders to shift toward natural gas, solar, wind and energy efficiency instead.

“The truth is that the U.S. nuclear sector has been in retreat for a couple of decades, basically since Three Mile Island,” said Lucas Davis, an associate professor of economics at UC Berkeley. “It costs billions of dollars to build a new nuclear plant. And coal and natural gas has been cheaper.”

Today, Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County is California’s only remaining nuclear power plant. It is the third-largest power plant in California, behind San Onofre and Moss Landing, a natural gas-fired plant in Monterey County, which is the largest.

San Onofre’s two reactors have been shut down since January 2012 after premature wear was discovered on more than 3,400 tubes in replacement steam generators. Southern California Edison already had spent hundreds of millions of dollars in repairs and upgrades; last month, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected the company’s request to restart one reactor at 70 percent capacity until more safety studies were completed.

“We have concluded that the continuing uncertainty about when or if (San Onofre) might return to service was not good for our customers, our investors, or the need to plan for our region’s long-term electricity needs,” said Ted Craver, chairman and CEO of Edison International, which is Southern California Edison’s parent company.

Full decommissioning of the plant “will take many years,” the company added, noting that 1,100 jobs will be lost in the closure.

A statewide summer electricity forecast last month by the ISO found that
even if San Onofre was not operating, the state should have enough electricity to get through the summer without the kinds of blackouts in 2000 and 2001 that contributed to the recall of former Gov. Gray Davis.

It noted, however, that during heat waves when power demand spikes for air conditioning, the operating reserve margins of electricity in Northern California could drop this summer from 20 percent to 7 percent. In Southern California, the situation will be even tighter, with the reserve margin estimated at 6 percent during heat waves.

Any time the operating reserves — the difference between the amount of power available and the amount that people and businesses are using — hits 7 percent, a “Stage 1 emergency” is called. The ISO issues a “Flex Alert” asking people for voluntary conservation. Rolling blackouts occur when reserves dip below 3 percent.

On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown asked Californians to use electricity wisely.

“At my direction, California’s top energy experts will continue developing a long-term plan that ensures there is reliability for decades to come,” he said. “As we move into the hot summer months, we can all do our part by continuing to conserve.”

Environmentalists who have blasted Edison over safety issues at San Onofre, cheered the closure.

“Southern California Edison’s decision to close this cranky, unpredictable and potentially very dangerous power plant is smart for its bottom line, smart for ratepayers, and smart for the environment,” said Kathryn Phillips, executive director of Sierra Club California. “As the utilities look to grow in the future, they now have better choices than they had 40 years ago. Solar, wind and other renewable energy technology have advanced dramatically in that time.”

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