California is looking toward a renewable future amid controversial decisions on power plants

California officials have been criticized in recent months for their decisions to extend the lives of natural gas and nuclear facilities despite the state’s pledges to shift to cleaner energy.

Lawmakers argued that the moves are part of a critical balancing act between California’s ambitious renewable energy goals and the need to keep homes warm and powered.

But many scientists and environmental advocates believe that this step is unnecessary, and that the country will succeed in providing sufficient energy and achieving its goals without keeping such plants open.

“We have abundant resources of clean, renewable energy,” Laura DeHaan, California’s state director of environmental affairs, told The Hill. “In fact, with current technology, we have the ability to build a much more resilient electricity grid.”

Power plant extensions are controversial

Earlier this month, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voted unanimously to increase the capacity of the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility — a site that was also home to the nation’s largest methane leak in 2015. that. It served “to protect taxpayers from the spike in natural gas prices that occurred last winter.”

About a year earlier, state lawmakers — with the governor’s support — passed legislation seeking to extend the lifespan of the decades-old Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. While nuclear power plants do not generate greenhouse gases, they do produce a small amount of radioactive waste.

Officials emphasized that keeping the Diablo site open could help tide the state over as it transitions to a fully renewable energy economy.

The decisions appear to conflict with climate goals the state has set over the past five years.

California committed in 2018 to achieving a grid powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, according to legislation signed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) followed up last year with interim goals aimed at reaching 90 percent renewable energy by 2035 and 95 percent by 2040. Meanwhile, separate legislation urged carbon neutrality no later than 2045, with emissions reductions set to By 85 percent as well. The target for that year, compared to 1990 levels.

The move to expand the capacity of the Aliso Canyon facility was also seen as a dramatic shift from Newsom’s campaign promises in 2018 — at which time the then-lieutenant governor told a reporter he was “fully committed” to closing the site entirely.

The main component of natural gas is methane, a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The October 2015 spill at the Aliso Canyon facility, which was only brought under control in February 2016, forced more than 8,000 families to temporarily relocate.

In response to the CPUC’s decision, Newsom’s deputy press secretary at the time emphasized that although the governor appreciated the agency’s efforts to maintain power reliability, he continued to call for the permanent closure of the facility.

DeHaan expressed her disappointment in seeing these gas stations receive expansions, especially since they are located “in places with a history of environmental disasters.”

“For me, this underscores the urgent need to move faster toward our clean energy goals,” she said.

Among recent and controversial energy-related moves was the passage of legislation last fall that seeks to extend operations of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, located along California’s central coast, until 2030.

Licenses for the site’s two reactors were scheduled to expire in November 2024 and August 2025, respectively, and Pacific Gas and Electric previously announced plans to decommission them at that point.

However, about six months after the legislation passed, the Federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted an exemption allowing the facility to operate under its existing licenses while the agency considers a renewal that could last up to 20 years.

While Newsom and state lawmakers have supported the extension as a credible bridge to support California’s clean energy transition, environmental groups have been vocal in their opposition to the plans.

Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, attributed the decision to “the power of lobbying exerted by the nuclear industry and its advocates.”

Potential of renewable energy sources

Experts like Jacobson stress that keeping power plants online is unnecessary and potentially counterproductive.

“There are a lot of renewable energy projects in the queue in California,” Jacobson told The Hill.

“A lot of them are slowing down either because of transportation barriers or red tape,” he said. “They were only supported in terms of permissible approvals.”

Jacobson cited a variety of solar, geothermal, wind, hydropower and battery storage projects in the works, stressing that “there’s really no reason why California can’t be 80 percent renewable by 2030 or even 2027.”

From a technology perspective, he expressed confidence that California would have no problem meeting its renewable energy goals.

He pointed to the state putting 5 gigawatts of batteries on the grid in the past few years as an example of its ability to meet those goals, adding that excluding summer, California’s peak power demand is about 25 gigawatts.

Currently, solar energy meets almost all of the state’s daytime electricity needs, except in the summer, when natural gas is also used, according to Jacobson.

“At night, when solar is down, you have hydro, wind and geothermal, and they are pretty constant,” he said, noting that the batteries also “turn on” after sunset and before sunrise.

While Diablo Canyon remains open, it provides a peak supply of just 2.3 gigawatts, half the amount provided by batteries, Jacobson added.

“So Diablo Canyon isn’t really necessary,” he said.

Jacobson took this idea a step further by emphasizing that the ongoing Diablo Canyon operation prevents further offshore wind development.

“Diablo Canyon has a huge transmission line up to the coast there,” he said. “Basically, Diablo Canyon is crossing that line — slowing the ability of offshore winds to form off the coast of central California.”

DeHaan added that California’s coastal environment is among “the places in the world where the wind is blowing harder and faster than anywhere else — and the potential for clean energy production is really high there.”

A 2021 study co-authored by Jacobson suggested that deploying more offshore wind turbines could help avoid summer blackouts because wind speeds are fastest during this season.

Acknowledging that offshore wind costs have risen recently due to rising interest rates, Jacobson expressed some concern about a potential slowdown in infrastructure deployment if the situation does not resolve itself soon.

But on Thursday night, the California Legislature passed Assembly Bill 1373, which would allow the CPUC and the Department of Water Resources to purchase power from offshore wind developers if it is signed into law by Newsom.

“It’s about giving the state the ability to purchase that clean energy,” DeHaan said. “This way, they can demand it, which will then provide a great deal of certainty to all market forces, to investors and developers.”

Regarding solar energy, Jacobson said that this resource is still “very cheap” and that the cost of batteries – which can be installed quickly – has dropped significantly.

But the professor accused the major utilities of “fighting tooth and nail to prevent people from putting solar on their roofs,” referring to the recent decision to weaken incentives for new installations.

“The fact that they are pushing this nuclear power while minimizing the benefits of residential solar is ridiculous,” he said.

“Before standards”

While Jacobson reiterated his belief that California would have no problem keeping homes supplied with power and heat without Aliso or Diablo extensions, he also highlighted the potential to respond to citizen demand in emergency situations.

One day last year, when there was a chance the grid could fail, Newsom made an announcement asking people to stop using power, Jacobson recalls.

“Surprisingly, everyone did,” he said. “This was actually a case of demand response where they didn’t even need financial incentives.”

Jacobson has touted the demand side’s ability to “take over the grid”, while dismissing the idea that the grid will fail with more renewables as “complete nonsense”.

He acknowledged that lobbying against renewable energy deployment could slow the state’s charge to meet its clean energy goals.

He added: “But this does not stop it, nor does it reverse it.” “If anything, it just slows us down a bit.”

Jacobson said there was no technical reason why the state couldn’t achieve its ambitions even sooner, with all the renewable energy projects waiting in the queue.

“If everything is approved today, you can reach the goal much faster,” he added.

DeHaan echoed these sentiments, emphasizing that California is not far off track at all on its climate commitments.

“We are ahead of the benchmarks every time in achieving all our clean energy goals,” she said. “The challenge is: Can we accelerate those goals?”

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