California may rescue its last nuclear power plant — and give PG&E millions to do it
The California Legislature has just taken the first step toward possibly extending the life of the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, the state’s last nuclear facility, past its scheduled closure.
The energy trailer bill negotiated by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and approved by lawmakers late Wednesday allocates a reserve fund of up to $75 million to the state Department of Water Resources to prolong the operation of aging power plants scheduled to close. Diablo Canyon, on the coast near San Luis Obispo, has been preparing to shut down for more than five years.
The funding is part of a contentious bill that aims to address a couple of Newsom’s most pressing concerns — maintaining the reliability of the state’s increasingly strained power grid, and avoiding the politically damaging prospect of brown-outs or blackouts.
Should the Newsom administration choose to extend the life of the nuclear plant, the funding would allow that — although the actual cost to keep the 37-year-old facility owned by Pacific Gas and Electric is not known. Newsom’s office and the Department of Water Resources did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comment. Asked for an estimate, PG&E spokesperson Lynsey Paulo did not provide one.
Even if only a contingency fund, the optics of sending millions of state and federal dollars to the state’s largest utility — which has a recent record of responsibility for deadly wildfires and state “bailouts” — are politically problematic.
In a letter issued to the state Assembly this evening, Newsom announced that he signed the bill, which creates a reserve that he said “will only be used in extreme events such as heatwaves and only as a last resort.”
The governor directed the state’s Energy Commission, Air Resources Board and Department of Water Resources to work with other local, regional and state agencies to ensure clean energy projects are prioritized over fossil fuels.
“The Strategic Reserve will be comprised exclusively of new emergency and temporary generators, new storage systems, clean generation projects, and funding on extension of existing generation operations, if any occur,” Newsom’s statement said. “The bill does not facilitate the renewal or extension of any permit for expiring power plants.”
While it’s true that the energy bill doesn’t itself authorize the extension of the plant’s life, it does provide the money should state leaders decide to do so. Such a move would require “subsequent legislation and review and approval by state, local and federal regulatory entities,” said Lindsay Buckley, a spokesperson for the California Energy Commission.
Overall, the energy trailer bill seeks to address the thorny transition as California tries to move from a reliance on fossil fuels to achieve carbon neutrality by 2045. The legislation spells out the state’s concern that, during extreme weather events, renewable energy alone will not be enough to meet the state’s rising power demand.
The state’s solution: Keep Diablo Canyon as open as a failsafe, and pay to retrofit several aging fossil fuel facilities and backup power generation.
“The governor requested this language, not as a decision to move ahead with continuing operation of Diablo Canyon, but to protect the option to do that if a future decision is made,” said state Sen. John Laird, a Democrat from San Luis Obispo.
He also said the public should have a chance to weigh in before a final decision is made on the plant’s fate.
“The shuttering of Diablo Canyon has been years in the making, with hundreds of millions of dollars already committed for decommissioning,” Laird said. “Along with the residents of the Central Coast, I’m eager to see what the governor and federal officials have in mind.”
Located on the state’s Central Coast, Diablo Canyon has been supplying power to the state’s electric grid since 1985. Its 2,240 megawatts of electricity generation is roughly enough to support the needs of more than 3 million people.
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