Is SONGS haunting energy's past, present, and future?

Larissa KoehlerEarlier this year, Southern California Edison (SCE) permanently retired the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) after forty years of operation in San Diego County, appearing to put the large-scale power plant firmly in the past. However, much like Ebenezer Scrooge, California is grappling with the specter of SONGS’ past – which may haunt our present and future.

The story of SONGS is not unique to California. As of the end of 2012, 28 nuclear power plants were shut down in the United States – and many more will face the same fate in the near future, as they reach the end of their design life. Thus, a transition to renewables and incentivizing reduced demand – and a refusal to be tied to fossil fuels – is an issue of national importance.

The closure of SONGS has left California at an important crossroads: Continue to lean on fossil fuel energy and build additional combustion power plants – like Marley’s ghost chained to the past – or start shaping the future by using the clean solutions that are available today.

In a brief filed in a California Public Utilities Commission proceeding, EDF explained that California has time to develop environmentally superior resources, which California has dubbed “preferred resources,” and should do so before investing more resources in highly polluting fossil fuels:

  • Demand Response

Demand response (DR) and time-of-use (TOU) rate programs offer incentives to customers who reduce their energy usage when there is a high system-wide demand, which requires the use of more expensive and inefficient peaking power plants.

These programs have a tremendous potential to impact necessary demand: If 50% of SCE’s customers participated, energy demand would be reduced by two-thirds of the capacity SONGS provided.  As a bonus, those customers would also collectively see cost savings of $357 million, a 15% decrease.

Peter Lee /flickr

  • Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency measures result in huge energy and cost savings.  For example, in 2010 and 2011 CPUC energy efficiency programs saw energy savings that were enough to power more than 600,000 households and offset 1,069 megawatts (MW) of electric capacity – equal to the output of 3 large power plants.

  • Renewables

California currently has 10,700 MW of wind and solar power connected to the CAISO grid, with plans to add 8,000 more MW by 2020. For reference, consider that SONGS had the capacity to produce 2,200 MW of electricity.

  • Storage

The CPUC is already starting to put increased focus on energy storage, to good effect.  Continuing to emphasize the importance of storage could transition California from needing to rely on traditional energy sources at any time of the day.

In a talk on December 2, Commissioner Andrew McAllister of the California Energy Commission stated that the closure of SONGS “is an opportunity to see what’s possible.” We agree: rather than be haunted by the specter of SONGS, California should take this opportunity to innovate and work to fill any gap in production with preferred resources first.

In this way, the state can serve as a template for how other parts of the country could use current, clean resources to create jobs, lower prices for consumers, and improve air quality through reduced emissions. Additional combustion power plants? Bah, humbug!

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2 Comments

  1. Blake
    Posted December 24, 2013 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    Your statement, "as of the end of 2012, 28 nuclear power plants were shutdown in the United States," is incorrect. The way it should read is "as of the end of 2012, 28 nuclear reactors were in various stages of decommissioning." Thats because 11 of those reactors were research and test reactors found at universities and national laboratories. Research reactors are not power plants. They did not produce any electricity. The remaining 17 reactors were power plants but have been shut down for several decades. With the exception of SONGS, all of the others have been under going decommissioning since the 90's or earlier.

  2. Larissa Koehler
    Posted December 26, 2013 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Thank you for your comment. According to my source, the United Nations environmental programme yearbook 2012, 28 reactors have been shut down – I chose to mirror that particular term.