News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Study: California Could Replace San Onofre Nuke With Renewables

San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station | Photo: Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As the long process of diagnosing the damages San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station on the San Diego coast becomes longer, chances increase that the 2.2-gigawatt nuclear power plant could be out of commission as late as next summer. Going without that power generating capacity puts the state at greater risk of brownouts. But a study just released by a renowned alternative energy thinktank holds that the state could make up for lost power from San Onofre by conserving energy and increasing our use of easily implemented renewable energy such as rooftop solar.

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The report, Reinventing Fire in Southern California; Distributed Resources and the San Onofre Outage, published this week by the Rocky Mountain Institute, details a number of historic situations in which communities conserved energy in response to unanticipated loss of power, including 2011's earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster in Japan. Short-term measures in those crises made it possible to reduce demand for power by 20% or more in the very short term -- a fact that RMI's authors Mathias Bell and James Newcomb say offers significant hope for Californians worried about going without San Onofre.

The report identifies six major strategies for cutting California's reliance on San Onofre's power -- or indeed, any centralized power station that may fail unpredictably. They are:

  • Behavioral savings: encouraging people to turn off lights and use appliances during non-peak hours
  • Demand response: a grid-based practice in which utilities and grid operators reduce power consumption by cutting out the biggest consumers during peaks
  • Energy efficiency: insulating, retrofitting, and replacing inefficient applaiances with better ones, on a household or industrial scale
  • Solar photovoltaics (PV): including rooftop solar
  • Combined heat and power (CHP) and fuel cells: taking advantage of waste energy in industrial settings to generate power
  • Grid Storage: evening out demand by allowing power produced by intermittent renewables to be consumed later

Bell and Newcomb point out that grid storage isn't going to be available by next summer, leaving us with five feasible strategies for weathering a San Onofre Shutdown. Even so, there's hope. For one thing, the report says, California has enough rooftop solar potential to run the entire state. For another, we seem to be far better at conserving energy than the rest of the country. Californians' energy use per capita has stayed flat since 1978, while per capita consumption in the country as a whole has gone up by 30% in that same period.

The Rocky Mountain Institute's report is likely to be taken very seriously. RMI's founder Amory Lovins more or less pioneered the field of alternative energy research in the 1970s, back when putting a solar panel on your roof was considered evidence of subversive politics and recreational drug use. The world has caught up to RMI somewhat in the four decades since, and the organization is lauded for its rock-solid work. If RMI says California can get by without San Onofre by doing a handful of things we plan to do anyway, it raises the question: what other large centralized power generating stations might we be able to do without?

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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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We need to get the hydrogen fuel cycle going with fuel cells. That will be the way of storing power during off-hours. It's not very efficient yet, but it's a lot cleaner than batteries, and it make power storage more portable.