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Kristin Eberhard’s Blog

Choosing a cleaner future without SONGS

Kristin Eberhard

Posted July 11, 2013

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The highest-level decision makers from all of California’s energy and air agencies plan to gather in Los Angeles Monday to discuss the future of the state’s grid without the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS).

Although we already knew we could make it through the summer without the 2,200 megawatts (MW) from the massive nuclear plant now that Southern California Edison has announced plans to permanently close SONGS, which previously provided enough power for more than a million Southern California homes, we are faced with unexpected decisions about the next 50 years.

Monday’s forum, as well as a Senate committee hearing yesterday, offer opportunities for the state, and particularly the Southern California region, to proactively shape its electricity future faster than expected. NRDC will participate in Monday’s forum to help steer California toward a cleaner future.

San Onofre.jpg

Southern California’s Choice

In broad strokes, here are our options for shaping our power system in the coming decades:

  • Move quickly to become a 21st century power system employing a clean, reliable, cost-effective mix of energy efficiency, renewables, clean demand response (DR), and transmission upgrades; or
  • Stick with the 20th century system and simply replace the large nuclear plant with a new, large, polluting, natural gas plant.

The first option means forging an uncharted path and performing a delicate balancing act between resources, but it offers big pay-offs: a cleaner, more resilient, and ultimately more cost-effective system.

The second offers short-term ease of switching out one known quantity for another, but poses significant downsides: climate change pollution, unhealthy air, and vulnerability to price volatility down the road.

Which will we choose?

The Cleaner Path

There is no doubt that we need to continue on the cleaner path that can take us to a healthier environment and more stable energy future, but getting there isn’t a simple journey. Many of the necessary actions must be taken by California agencies and electricity utilities, but each of us living and working in Southern California can do our part.

Ramp up Clean Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is the cleanest, cheapest energy resource we have because it avoids or reduces the need for dirty power generation. Getting as much work or more out of the same amount of energy as possible -- as soon as possible -- should be our first course of action.

Ramp up Clean Demand Response (DR)

Demand Response programs allow customers (mostly large commercial or industrial customers) to act like a “virtual power plant” by changing the amount or the timing of their electricity usage in response to grid conditions. Demand response has been termed one of the “best dance partners” in the delicate dance of coordinating a new clean grid.

Enhance the grid instead of building new power plants

The California Independent System Operator plans to get through the summer without SONGS by converting Huntington Beach power plants to synchronous condensors, rather than using them to generate unnecessary power and unnecessary pollution. This is a terrific example of using a smarter solution to solve our grid needs, rather taking the “easy” road of building unnecessarily expensive and polluting new capacity. Beyond this summer, we have even more options for using grid solutions instead of power plants.

Increase regional cooperation and coordination

We need a more flexible grid for the 21st century, whether we choose a clean path or not.  Increased coordination and cooperation between the California Independent Systems Operator balancing authority that oversees the grid and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power balancing authority can help accelerate progress toward a flexible, clean, and reliable power system.

Looking Forward

The clean path forward for Southern California is complicated and will require continuing communication and coordination between the investor-owned-utilities (SCE and SDG&E), publicly owned utilities like Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, state energy agencies (California Energy Commissions, California Public Utilities Commission), air pollution agencies (California Air Resources Board, South Coast Air Quality Management District), and grid-balancing authorities (California Independent System Operator, and LADWP). 

Monday’s meeting is another important element of this ongoing coordination. Our hope is that it results in a clear path toward a cleaner, more reliable future.

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