Seeking to seize control of its future, PG&E has made a clear-eyed decision to shutter the massive Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and is wisely promising to replace it without adding to greenhouse gas emissions.
The utility is often maligned, for good reason. But with the announcement Tuesday that it will decommission Diablo Canyon’s twin reactors by 2024 and 2025, PG&E is doing right by its customers, and is showing utilities elsewhere in the country that renewable energy is a rational alternative to nuclear power.
If all goes as planned, Diablo Canyon, which began producing power in the mid-1980s, will be California’s last nuclear power plant. Its closure will be no small undertaking.
Diablo Canyon supplies almost 9 percent of the state’s base energy needs. However, PG&E believes it can replace that output and meet future demand with renewable energy, greater efficiency and improved storage technology.
In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s announcement, PG&E won support from important political, labor and environmental leaders. On Tuesday, its top executives, Tony Earley and Geisha Williams, spoke on the same press call with Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, an organization dedicated to shutting Diablo Canyon.
Diablo Canyon’s closure will be no small undertaking, as PG&E must procure replacement power and resolve how to pay for it.
PG&E will have several years to plan for the closure. Southern California Edison, by contrast, shut the San Onofre nuclear power plant rather suddenly in 2012, and had to scramble to replace the power with fossil fuel-burning plants. PG&E also will have time to ease the transition for Diablo Canyon workers, which is key to labor’s decision to embrace the deal.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom can take no small amount of credit for forcing PG&E’s hand. At Newsom’s urging, the State Lands Commission, of which he is a member, was preparing to require that PG&E undertake an environmental impact review before extending leases beyond 2018 for land where Diablo Canyon’s water intake and discharge structures sit.
The commission is expected to drop that proposal when it meets next week and instead approve its operation until 2024-25 when PG&E’s federal license expires, Newsom told an editorial board member.
Although many adversaries are in accord, significant questions remain. The plant in San Luis Obispo County is in an active seismic zone. PG&E believes Diablo Canyon can withstand a massive earthquake. But the Fukushima disaster underscores the risk of its continued operation.
For consumers, there’s the unanswered question of who will pay how much for the replacement power. The San Francisco-based utility will seek California Public Utilities Commission approval for what it calls “non-bypassable cost allocation.”
In other words, PG&E hopes all its customers would pay, including users who seek to get off the grid by joining small-scale community-based power distributors, or by installing rooftop solar or other alternatives such as fuel cells.
For now, PG&E’s decision should engender goodwill, and that is significant for a company that has stumbled many times in recent years. Its failures turned deadly in 2010 when a pipeline exploded in San Bruno, killing eight people. Whether coincidental or not, the Diablo Canyon announcement will divert attention from the federal criminal trial of PG&E over that explosion that is happening in San Francisco.
Long ago, nuclear power advocates envisioned electricity too cheap to meter. That never happened. And although nuclear plants don’t produce greenhouse gas, there are good and cost-effective 21st-century alternatives to an energy source from the last century.
Perhaps PG&E should have acted sooner. Certainly, state and federal regulators would have posed challenges to any effort to renew the operating license. But the utility is making the right decision by extricating itself and California from reliance on nuclear power. For that it deserves credit.