The sudden shutdown of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) exposed the vulnerability of California’s electrical grid, and highlighted the need for a state energy policy that’s responsibly diverse and grounded in reality, not wishful thinking.
Sized at 2000 megawatts, SONGS provided about 20 percent of Southern California’s electricity, enough to light some 1.4 million homes and businesses. That power is gone. Another 19,000 megawatts are in jeopardy because of a state law requiring older coastal power plants that use seawater for cooling to be modernized, replaced or shut down by 2020.
How we replace this lost electricity while growing the system to meet future demand is critical. And we better get this right, because electricity is what drives our economy and way of life. San Diego’s blackout in 2011 left more than a million residents in the dark, disrupted lives and commerce, and caused an estimated $100 million in economic damage in the county. Seeing this played out on a statewide stage would be disastrous.
So how do we replace the SONGS power and build a system that provides clean, reliable and affordable electricity, without the threat of rolling blackouts and economic upheaval? First, we need to continue expanding common sense programs that encourage energy efficiency and reduce consumption, like rooftop solar panels and “smart meters” that allow customers to manage energy. This will help, but it won’t be enough if we want the power needed for a vibrant economy.
Second, we need to continue investing in renewable resources like wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. These are proven, low-carbon technologies that will take us a long way toward an abundant energy future. But they still won’t be enough. While biomass and geothermal provide uninterrupted power, solar and wind facilities only work when the sun shines and the wind blows. To close the gap, clean, modern natural gas plants are essential.
Thanks to new technology, these natural gas facilities can quickly adjust their generation, increasing or decreasing their output to match the needs of the grid in real time. When wind and solar are off the grid, natural gas can bridge the gap seamlessly, ensuring a reliable supply of electricity for business and residential consumers.
While not carbon free, natural gas plants emit about half the carbon dioxide generated by the out-of-state coal-fired plants whose electricity we import. Moreover, new technologies are making these gas-fueled plants even cleaner and more efficient.
When it comes to retooling California’s natural gas facilities, we’re making good progress. The energy company NRG has just modernized its El Segundo facility, replacing an Eisenhower-era power plant with new technology that doesn’t require seawater for cooling. Meanwhile, AES California is proposing to modernize three of its existing natural gas facilities in Southern California with new designs and technologies that will improve their appearance, increase efficiency and cut emissions in half, while generating power for millions of homes and businesses where the electricity is needed. Other natural gas plants have been added in San Diego and Northern California.
These modern facilities are the backbone of California’s electricity grid, providing clean and reliable power when other technologies aren’t producing.
Some energy advocates argue that rooftop solar cells, energy efficiency and “demand response” are all that’s needed to meet future needs and fill the hole left by SONGS. But while many of these technologies and programs are promising, they can’t do it alone — not reliably or cost effectively. Maybe one day, but not now. No matter how well intentioned, it would be foolish to stunt economic growth and jeopardize our personal comfort by launching an untested “science fair” energy experiment at the expense of our state’s responsibly diverse energy portfolio.
To power California forward, we need a smart mix of technologies and energy-saving programs. We need them all.
Jan Smutny-Jones is CEO of Independent Energy Producers, which represents California’s private-sector.