As Nuclear Plants Shut Down, Renewable Energy Could Boom
While the safety, cost, and long-term environmental impacts of nuclear energy have been contested for the past half century, there is no debate that nuclear power plants are a significant source of carbon-free electricity.
So is this the best time to be shutting them down?
It is in California. One of the state’s biggest utilities—Pacific Gas and Electric Company—environmental groups, and labor organizations have proposed shuttering Diablo Canyon, California’s last nuclear power plant, when its license expires in 2025 and replacing it with solar, wind, and other sources of renewable energy.
The shutdown has implications nationwide, as it shows how dozens of other aging nuclear plants could also be closed in favor of cheap natural gas or renewable energy.
Diablo Canyon’s 2.3 gigawatts of generation capacity supply about 8.6 percent of the state’s electricity, providing power to around 20 percent of PG&E’s customers in Northern and Central California. The fear: Despite PG&E’s commitment to replace Diablo Canyon with solar and wind, the company will be forced to rely on carbon-spewing natural gas plants if it can’t ramp up renewables fast enough.
That’s what happened when the state shut down the San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California after its steam generators failed in 2012.
Solar and wind farms supply 11 percent of California’s electricity demand. The state would have to nearly double renewable energy production by 2025 to make up for the loss of Diablo Canyon.
That’s entirely feasible, said Michael Dorsey, a former member of the Sierra Club’s board of directors. In just three years, solar energy jumped from under 1 percent of statewide electricity production to 6.7 percent in 2015, according to California’s power grid operator.
“Twenty years ago, it wouldn’t make sense to take this type of power offline to replace it with carbon-emitting power sources,” said Dorsey, now the interim director at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies’ energy and environment program. “But the prices are now there, they are competitive, and it makes economic sense to bring photovoltaics and wind here now.”
PG&E’s plan is notably light on specifying what types of renewables will replace Diablo Canyon, but the closure plan identifies three strategies. The first step is to reduce electricity demand by 225 megawatts by expanding the use of energy-efficient lighting, appliances, and other equipment. The utility will also add 225 megawatts of renewable energy from solar and wind farms by 2030. Last, the company will exceed state-mandated targets for renewable energy production.
Not all the power generated by Diablo Canyon needs to be replaced, according to PG&E, given energy-efficiency advances and technological changes in the way the power grid operates.
“Given these and other uncertainties, the parties cannot, and it would be a mistake to try to, specify all the necessary replacement procurement now,” PG&E stated in the proposal to shutter Diablo Canyon.
The boom in rooftop solar systems will also help meet electricity demand, said Geisha Williams, president of PG&E. Photovoltaic panels installed on the roofs of homes and businesses account for an estimated 5 percent of California’s electricity generation.
“You don’t need [Diablo Canyon],” Williams told KQED. “There’s been so much energy efficiency. There’s been so much power that’s been generated by customers on their own private solar rooftop.”
The nuclear power decline could be a turning point for solar.
“To the extent that any capacity is retired—nuclear or otherwise—it’s an opportunity for new solar development,” said Shayle Kann, senior vice president of research for Greentech Media.
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is calling for solar capacity to grow from 26 gigawatts to 140 gigawatts by the end of 2020 and for half a billion solar panels to be installed by the end of her first term if she is elected.
“Clinton’s target can be reached if the U.S. solar market grows at an annual rate of 32 percent from 2017–2020,” Kann wrote in a blog post. “This is roughly on par with our projected 36 percent growth rate from 2013–2016, but the market’s growth during Obama’s second term is coming from a much smaller installed base.
“In other words, the market just needs to keep growing at the same rate for another four years. That won’t happen under business-as-usual conditions, hence the big difference between our 2020 forecast and Clinton’s goal,” Kann wrote.
The cost of producing electricity from photovoltaic panels is expected to drop by 59 percent worldwide by 2025, according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency, making solar cheaper than fossil fuels.
“The fact is that we live in a world where technologically, financially, environmentally, and ethically, nuclear power generation no longer makes sense,” Dorsey said.
The California Public Utilities Commission still has to approve the closure of Diablo Canyon. If the commission rejects the proposal, the company could attempt to relicense the plant and keep it running past 2025. But PG&E CEO Tony Earley wrote in a letter to employees that keeping Diablo Canyon open no longer makes economic sense given the amount of ever-cheaper renewable energy coming online.