California Closing Nuclear Plant That Kept Lights On During Summer Heat Wave

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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California utilities asked consumers to use less power during an oppressive heat wave Wednesday and Thursday, but regulators still plan to take the state’s last nuclear reactor offline soon due to pressure from environmentalists.

The state’s electricity supplies are extremely tight due to the heatwave, which has both increased air conditioner use and reduced power imports from neighboring states that are also suffering from extremely high temperatures. Up to 122 million Americans were under heat alerts last week, according to the National Weather Service.

During the heat wave, wind power generated far less electricity than usual even though demand for electricity soared. Wind power doesn’t generate much energy during the peak demand hours of the afternoon, as most turbines stop turning. California’s electric utilities have been struggling to match demand for electricity during the state’s extremely hot summer weather for some time due to the state’s dependence on green energy.

California’s grid was saved by some lucky cloud cover and the state’s last operating nuclear plant in Diablo Canyon and other out-of-state reactors, which shattered record capacity factor levels to provide reliable electricity during a time of peak energy demand. Temperatures are expected to remain extremely high in coming days, above 100 degrees Fahrenheit across much of the state.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), which owns Diablo Canyon, agreed to shut it down in 2025 as part of a deal with environmental groups. The agreement says that PG&E will renounce plans to seek renewed operating licenses for Diablo Canyon’s two reactors and allow them to go offline in 2024 and 2025 respectively. The utility says it will replace the electricity from the reactors with green energy, but this will likely prove to be an enormous technical challenge.

Not all environmentalists agree with the decision to shut down the plant. Some greens even fought to keep Diablo Canyon’s two reactors online, as they produced 1,100 megawatts of electricity without generating any carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

Studies have shown that replacing nuclear with wind and solar power would double CO2 emissions by making the electrical grid unreliable. This unreliability would need to be compensated for by building new conventional power plants, which would create more CO2 emissions.

Green energy runs the risk of not producing enough electricity on especially cloudy or windless days and tends to provide electricity at times that don’t coincide when power is most needed. Peak energy demand for air conditioning occurs in the late afternoon and evenings when solar power is going offline.

America currently operates 99 nuclear reactors across 61 commercially operated nuclear power plants, according to the Energy Information Administration. The average nuclear plant employs between 400 and 700 highly-skilled workers, has a payroll of about $40 million and contributes $470 million to the local economy, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. The Diablo Canyon reactors employ 1,400 people.

Nuclear energy provides 19 percent of the nation’s electricity, but struggles to compete against heavily subsidized solar and wind power or cheap natural gas.

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