US energy: California’s cleaner dream
The state has attracted criticism over the plan to shut its last nuclear plant as part of its bid to cut emissions
Perched on a rocky coastal cliff in central California, surrounded by rolling hills and a nature reserve, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant has been a lightning rod for controversy for decades.
In the 1970s, the site attracted protests from tens of thousands of hippies, whose rallies against nuclear power often included impromptu musical performances from the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash.
“That was a huge time,” recalls resident Rochelle Becker, who participated in the protests and later founded an anti-nuclear group. “I was one of the people who didn’t get arrested. There were a lot of my friends who did.” She helped on the legal team for protesters who were detained, and even brought a guitar into jail for the singer Jackson Browne in 1981. The plant began operations four years later.
Now, the nuclear-free vision that Ms Becker and so many others fought for is being realised: Diablo Canyon, the last nuclear plant in California, is to be shut down. In June, Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility that owns the plant, said it would close within a decade and that most of the power it supplies replaced by renewable energy.
Yet there are doubts that closing the reactor will be a victory for the environment. Diablo Canyon is one of California’s largest sources of electricity generated without significant carbon dioxide emissions, providing 9 per cent of the state’s power. At a time when almost 200 countries have committed to action on global warming, giving up that capacity looks to many like a serious mistake. Other countries that have tried to go nuclear-free, most recently Germany, have faced increased fossil fuel use and rising emissions.
California’s attempt to use only renewable sources is being watched closely by energy executives and policymakers, both because of its size — it is the world’s sixth-largest economy — and because it has long been a pacesetter for environmental policies. Shutting its last nuclear plant while simultaneously trying to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent is perhaps the state’s boldest energy gambit yet. By 2030, the state aims to draw half of its electricity from renewables such as wind and solar.
For decades, Californians have worried about the safety of Diablo Canyon, not least because of its location near seismic faultlines. Now the facility is again drawing controversy, this time from those who want to keep it open.
During the period for public comment, dozens of groups filed formal protests. Even the Sierra Club, an environmental group known for its anti-nuclear stance, warned that the plan could “move California backwards” in meeting its emissions goals.
“The Sierra Club has significant concerns that the application’s proposed greenhouse gas mitigation is illusory,” it wrote.
Technological progress has sent the costs of solar and wind power plunging, to the point that the electricity they provide is often competitive, without subsidies, against new coal or gas-fired plants. But those sources cannot be relied on to deliver power whenever it is needed, even in sunny California. Many in the industry see a need for “baseload” plants that can generate power 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“Renewables right now just can’t provide power when it’s dark and when the wind doesn’t blow,” says Jan Vrins, head of global energy at Navigant, a research company. “We need nuclear plants to provide reliable baseload power and we should be very careful about shutting them down.”
Others are more blunt. Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, a pro-nuclear group, accuses California of “greenwashing” and an anti-nuclear agenda. California’s energy system will be “more expensive, less reliable, and dirtier” without Diablo, he says. One reason for the concern is that the state emissions targets, signed into law last month, set out much more drastic reductions than before. California will require emission reductions that are 10 times greater than those of the last 15 years to meet its 2030 goal.