Why California is shutting down its last nuclear plant
California is not keeping up with the energy demands of its residents.
In August 2020, hundreds of thousands of California residents experienced rolling electricity blackouts during a heat wave that maxed out the state’s energy grid.
The California Independent System Operator issues flex alerts asking consumers to cut back on electricity usage and move electricity usage to off-peak hours, typically after 9 p.m. There were 5 flex alerts issued in 2020 and there have been 8 in 2021, according to CAISO records.
On Friday, Sept. 10, the U.S. Department of Energy granted the state an emergency order to allow natural gas power plants to operate without pollution restrictions so that California can meet its energy obligations. The order is in effect until Nov. 9.
At the same time, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, owned by Pacific Gas and Electric and located near Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County, is in the middle of a decade-long decommissioning process that will take the state’s last nuclear power plant offline. The regulatory licenses for reactor Unit 1 and Unit 2, which commenced operation in 1984 and 1985 will expire in November 2024 and August 2025, respectively.
Diablo Canyon is the state’s only operating nuclear power plant; three others are in various stages of being decommissioned. The plant provides about 9% of California’s power, according to the California Energy Commission, compared with 37% from natural gas, 33% from renewables, 13.5% from hydropower, and 3% from coal.
Nuclear power is clean energy, meaning that the generation of power does not emit any greenhouse gas emissions, which cause global warming and climate change. Constructing a new power plant does result in carbon emissions, but operating a plant that is already built does not.
California is a strong advocate of clean energy. In 2018, the state passed a law requiring the state to operate with 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045.
The picture is confusing: California is closing its last operating nuclear power plant, which is a source of clean power, as it faces an energy emergency and a mandate to eliminate carbon emissions.
The explanations vary depending on which of the stakeholders you ask. But underlying the statewide diplomatic chess is a deeply held anti-nuclear agenda in the state.