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

Expert: Southern California Just Fine Without Nuclear Power Plant

The Huntington Beach gas-fired power plant won't help, as it's been decomissioned. | Photo: haymarket rebel/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Amid press speculation that rolling blackouts might return to Southern California in the absence of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, one expert on California's grid says the concern is overblown, and that existing generating capacity is more than adequate to carry the Southland through a hot summer.

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Engineer Bill Powers is a San Diego-based consultant and analyst on transmission, power generation, and emissions issues relating to electrical utilities, who -- full disclosure -- ReWire's host has worked with on a few projects in the past. Powers says that Southern California's electrical infrastructure is robust enough that the state can get through even a hotter than usual summer without San Onofre's 2,200-plus megawatts.

"SoCal is awash in excess natural gas-fired power plant capacity," Powers told ReWire. "That's due to a decade-long building boom that is still underway. The permanent shutdown of San Onofre will not necessitate any new construction of gas-fired plants or long-distance transmission lines."

That's not far off from what both Southern California Edison (SCE) and the California Independent System Operator (CaISO) have said, though both the utility and the grid operator have weaseled their words of reassurance a bit. CaISO, for instance, has been talking about a "marginally higher risk of outages" without the plant, and telling the Los Angeles Times that "[l]osing 2,250 megawatts from the system is a big deal, and if we ask for conservation, we need [consumers] to respond," in the words of CaISO chief executive Steve Berberich.

Looming over the discussion is the specter of "load shedding," better known as "rolling blackouts." If the margin between demand for power and the amount of power that's available gets too slim for the grid operator's liking, then CaISO will force that demand to drop by taking whole neighborhoods offline during peak periods.

But Powers points out that new gas-fired plants almost equal to San Onofre in output have either come online recently in Southern California, or are about to. They include a 500-megawatt plant in City of Industry, 560 megawatts in El Segundo, 200 megawatts in Anaheim, and the mammoth (and controversial) 850-megawatt Sentinel plant in Desert Hot Springs. Those plants reduce the shortfall from the moribund San Onofre from 2,250 megawatts to less than 150 megawatts. And all together, those gas plants will be providing considerably more power than San Onofre would have provided this summer if the NRC had given a quick thumbs-up to SCE's proposed low-power restart for Unit 2.

"The real story is that California utilities have so overbuilt infrastructure in the last decade that San Onofre can be shut down permanently with essentially zero impact on grid reliability in Southern California and no need to build any new infrastructure," Powers told ReWire. "It's misleading for Berberich and others to give people the impression that it's going to be a tight squeeze for power in Southern California this summer. We're built to withstand a 110-degree summer. We've never been further from the edge."

Which is not to say that Southern Californians don't need to conserve energy: every megawatt not used is one that doesn't need to be generated in one of those gas-fired plants, with their emissions and their cost. But if Powers is right, at least we can make our own choices of when and how to cut back on our electricity habit rather than having CaISO make that decision for us.

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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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