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How California can avoid Aliso Canyon reopening

People protest in May against Southern California Gas Co. outside its Aliso Canyon storage facility in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles.
People protest in May against Southern California Gas Co. outside its Aliso Canyon storage facility in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles. Associated Press file

Southern California Gas Co. has announced it is seeking approval to reopen the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, the site of one of the state’s worst ever environmental disasters. A massive leak spewed more than 109,000 metric tons of highly polluting methane into the atmosphere before it was plugged five months later.

Bringing Aliso Canyon back online before we even know what caused the leak seems like a risky bet, since little has been done to explore safer and cleaner alternatives.

In addition to environmental and public health damage, the facility’s closure put thousands of Southern Californians at risk of power outages due to overdependence on a single energy source – natural gas. It also underscored the need to more aggressively conserve natural gas and to expand renewable energy sources.

Currently, California relies heavily on natural gas to generate electricity for a reliable power grid. Because different renewables generate power at different times, increasing conservation programs and diversifying the mix to include more wind and geothermal will create a more consistent flow of electricity and reduce the need for natural gas.

These solutions are available now, and we know they work. Demand-response programs encourage customers to shift electricity use to times of the day when renewable power generation is high, taking advantage of “excess” clean electricity and reducing the need to ramp up natural gas plants.

Systems such as pumped hydropower, compressed air and advanced batteries can be used to store electricity from renewable sources and discharge it when needed. Pooling power generation across a larger area lets grid operators use natural gas more efficiently and integrate a more diversified mix of renewable power sources.

These are also ways to reduce reliance on natural gas plants, and the air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions which they produce.

Diversifying California’s energy mix is more than just a smart idea, it’s state law. We have goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and produce 50 percent of our power from renewable sources.

As we look back on the catastrophic Aliso Canyon well failure and consider how we want to proceed, we must acknowledge that overdependence on natural gas makes us vulnerable. The best solution is to diversify the state’s energy mix, invest in energy efficiency and expand the use of advanced storage and demand-response technologies.

V. John White is executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies. He can be contacted at vjw@ceert.org.

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