Opinion: California’s clean energy transition is neither green nor sustainable

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July 22, 2021

Inquiry-driven, this article reflects personal views, aiming to enrich problem-related discourse.

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California reaches another milestone as it travels down the unwise path of transitioning away from nuclear energy, the most reliable energy source in America. In 2016, energy company Pacific Gas & Electricity and the Californian government mutually decided to close down Diablo Canyon, the state’s last nuclear power plant, in 2024. This is just one of the latest developments in a series of disastrous actions by the Californian energy sector that flaunt the notion of “green energy development” without actually promoting clean or effective energy. From a 2021 perspective, this action does little in reducing greenhouse gas emissions while it hurts low and middle income residents the most. 

Diablo Canyon and nuclear power: the pros and cons

Ever since the Diablo Canyon power plant was proposed in 1966, it faced heavy backlash from environmental groups. For example, protesters from the Abalone Alliance, a collection of 12 environmental groups, spent weeks climbing fences and occupying the grounds to prevent the plant from being built.They were mainly concerned about the power plant’s proximity to the Hosgri Fault, part of the notorious San Andreas Fault System. In response to these concerns, the proposed plant underwent major changes to ensure safety. Finally, in late 1984, the plant began to generate electricity. 

For many years, the plant operated safely and successfully. As one of the most efficient emission-free energy sources, its performance has been unparalleled. Diablo Canyon generated 18,430 GWH of energy for Californians in 2010 without releasing any greenhouse gases. In comparison, California’s Solar Star, the largest solar farm in the US, can generate a maximum of 2536 GWH of energy per year assuming the sun shines brightly 12 hours a day every day. 

Furthermore, nuclear power plants like Diablo Canyon consume very little fuel. On average, a nuclear power plant requires just 0.007 pounds of enriched uranium to produce 1 MWH of energy. Meanwhile a coal plant requires 378 kilograms (833 pounds) of coal to produce the same amount of energy. Therefore, despite the potential health hazards related to uranium mining, and radiation poisoning, these dangers are minimized due to the relatively small amount of fuel used and the extensive safety precautions that power plants take. 

Nevertheless, safety concerns about Diablo Canyon resurfaced after the infamous 2011 Fukushima power plant meltdown in Japan. Once again, critics of Diablo Canyon pointed to the Hosgri Fault and demanded the plant’s closure. Additionally, the plant’s owner, the Pacific Gas and Electricity Company (PG&E), has been under fire for its cooling system. In May of 2021, the company was fined $5.9 million for discharging the power plant’s cooling water back into the Pacific Ocean and the potential adverse impacts of its actions on marine life. 

Despite the various setbacks related to Diablo Canyon, nuclear power has proven to be a valuable resource for California. The state’s decision to close Diablo Canyon without drafting plans for a newer, safer nuclear plant poses a great danger to the energy sector, the environment, and individual consumers. 

Debunking the reasoning behind abandoning nuclear power

In the decision to close Diablo Canyon, the power plant owners cite “projected increases in energy efficiency, distributed generation, [and] renewable generation” through other energy sources to claim there is “simply less need” for nuclear power. Unfortunately, their decision is based mostly on estimates and wishful thinking while it downplays the necessity of nuclear power. Let’s take a look at the facts: 

First, Diablo Canyon has played an essential role in providing Californians with energy. As the lone remaining nuclear plant in the state, it single-handedly provided 8.06% of in-state electricity generation in 2019. When a single power plant can provide such a substantial amount of energy to the residents of the most populous state, its efficiency is superior to other forms of electricity production by far. In comparison, California’s 274 hydroelectric dams summed up to only 16.53% of electricity, and all 770 solar farms in the state totaled to just 14.22% of the state’s electricity. Furthermore, wind power, geothermal energy, and the remaining renewable energy sources did worse in comparison to a single nuclear plant. Based on these statistics, the “projected increases” in renewable energy seem premature at best while nuclear power in California remains essential. 

Shutting the last nuclear power plant is counterproductive to decreasing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

The official document detailing the closing of the power plant indicates the power plant owners are unsure about “what, if anything, should be done here to ensure that the retirement of Diablo 

Canyon will not result in an increase in GHG emissions.” In response to their own question, they provide the least satisfactory answer possible: “we simply cannot tell.” 

The lack of certainty concerning such an impactful decision is alarming, particularly because it indicates that California’s energy investments are not made based on sustainability or efficiency. If sustainability and efficiency were truly the main concern, nuclear energy would be the most obvious source to invest in. It emits no greenhouse gases, which is already a notable benefit. Its greatest perk lies in its extraordinarily high capacity factor of 92.5%: in the United States, 92.5% of the nuclear energy theoretically obtainable in power plants is actually harvested. Nuclear energy is far more reliable than all other energy sources, none of which pass the 75% threshold. Meanwhile, California invests in wind and solar, which have the absolute lowest capacity factors of 35.4% and 24.9%, respectively. It almost seems as if California’s energy transition is purposely ignoring consistency and reliability as it conflates sustainability with renewability. 

California and Energy Poverty 

California has a shocking poverty rate - 18% as of 2018. This is the highest poverty rate of any state in the nation. Unfortunately, the energy poverty crisis plays a significant role in this tragedy. Having to shoulder the 6th highest residential electricity costs in the nation, it is no wonder that Californians are struggling to pay their bills. 

Most economists agree that when a household spends 6% or less of total income on energy, then that energy is considered affordable. When this figure rises above 10%, it would be considered energy poverty. However, the poorest households in California (those below 50% of the federal poverty level) owe between 25 and 30% of their income to energy bills alone. To make matters worse, this problem is exacerbated in the rural eastern counties in California, where summer temperatures rise to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. As the temperature increases so do energy bills, further swamping the lower class with steep living costs.. 

Despite the need for affordable energy, California’s energy policy is anything but affordable. Renewable energy sources like solar and wind are simply more expensive, and place a burden on families that are already struggling financially. Cutting out nuclear power, which supplies nearly a tenth of California’s electricity, will simply tighten the supply and ramp up energy prices. While the rich can stay afloat, the middle and lower classes will struggle more with these changes. 

Recent trends indicate a need for more energy, and the shift toward unreliable renewables is counterproductive.

During the summer of 2020, Californians experienced rolling blackouts as the power grid could not keep up with the energy demand. The pandemic along with these constant blackouts spelled disaster for vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and Covid patients who relied on ventilators to survive. Though there were many reasons behind the blackouts, one of the most troubling was an underproduction in energy when it was most needed. Heat waves were rampant during the summer of 2020, which drove up demand for electricity. Moreover, they also caused a reduction in wind, severely hindering electricity generation by turbines. This energy crisis was mainly a product of poor planning that created a lack of reliability. However, California is continuing with its plan to abandon nuclear energy altogether by 2025 while its current energy situation is proving to be increasingly unpredictable. 

“PG&E believes that the continued operation of Diablo Canyon beyond 2025 would exacerbate over-generation, requiring curtailment of renewable generation,” the power plant owners and Californian government wrongly predicted back in 2017. Now, just a few years after this statement, their own residents suffer from power outages caused by the energy plan that they seek to subsidize. 

Moving forward

This direction of energy production will inevitably lead to an energy disaster larger than any Californians have experienced before. It is imperative to ensure that Californian residents are shielded from the energy disaster their government and energy companies have embraced. Instead of focusing their attention on this issue, California has been attempting to assist residents who live in poverty with various social safety nets, though it is questionable whether these programs are truly empowering the lower classes. After all, due to the state’s energy mismanagement, the quantity of affordable energy available is decreasing and impoverished communities are suffering as a consequence. It is impossible to reach equality or social change through redistribution of wealth and investing in expensive, inefficient energy. Instead, California must reinvest in reliable energy sources like nuclear power to expand their energy resources. Only then will the typical resident become empowered.

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