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Sympathy for Diablo

Nuclear power is by far America’s biggest source of zero-carbon energy, providing 19.5 percent of the nation’s electricity. So why are environmental groups who profess to care about climate change working overtime to get rid of nukes?

The mystery deepens with today’s announcement by Pacific Gas & Electric that it intends to shutter California’s Diablo Canyon facility, the West’s last zero-carbon nuclear plant. The decision reflects a deal PG&E has struck with labor and environmental groups to invest more in energy efficiency, renewables and storage as it phases out Diablo Canyon.

The news comes amid a recent wave of nuclear plant closures in the Midwest, where deregulated markets flush with wind and natural gas simply make the plants uncompetitive. But Diablo’s costs are carried by rates, not competitive markets, so something else was clearly at work. And that something was extreme green politics.

Behind the Faustian bargain were big environmental groups like Friends of the Earth, National Resources Defense Council and Environment California. Together with their allies in state government (Mary Nichols, chair of California’s powerful Air Resources Board, founded the state’s NRDC chapter), the groups have advocated successfully for policies that privilege renewables as the only “clean” route to a low-carbon economy. Governor Brown’s former girlfriend, Linda Ronstadt, recently joined celebrities who have made a second career off opposing Diablo in sending a letter of opposition to relicensing. Not surprisingly the state’s 50 percent renewable standard—enshrined on Governor Brown’s watch–excludes nuclear.

The bargain would let Diablo’s duel reactors run until 2024 and 2025 but retire them 20 years before their useful life is up, in 2044, 2045. The groups claim Diablo’s power would be replaced by renewables and by energy efficiency, but as Rod Adams, blogging for Forbes noted:

“That’s a deceptive fig leaf; it is physically impossible for wind, solar and energy efficiency to replace the steady production of a nuclear power plant. Producing the same total number of kilowatt-hours each year is not the same as producing the same kilowatt-hours on a minute by minute, hour by hour or day by day basis.”

The wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t shine at night but a nuclear reactor generates zero emission electricity 24/7. In a state where industry continues to flee (Toyota ran to Texas and Tesla opted for Reno) there just isn’t sufficient demand to manage over-generation. And for a company such as PG&E, beleaguered over the current criminal trial for a natural gas explosion, it was politics rather than economics that trumped the West’s last nuclear plant standing.

The timing could not be worse as parts of California are reeling from one of the worst heat waves to hit the Golden State at a time of year when it typically is blanketed by fog or “June Gloom.” In Southern California, grid operators are straining to meet demand in a system that both lost the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station but also placed a moratorium on natural gas from Aliso Canyon. As a result of the Aliso Canyon moratorium, the state’s grid operator for this summer has forecast at least 14 rolling blackouts.

Renewables need fast-ramp natural gas to back off generation at midday, when solar generates a surplus, and then to ramp back up at night when the sun sets. California’s grid operator throws away or curtails as much as 13,000 megawatts of excess electricity per day. For the green extreme shuttering Diablo is the path to tossing away less solar.

Reliability is an issue but the green extreme’s well-kept dirty secret is that wind and solar have severe environmental downsides. Diablo’s closure will eliminate in 10 years the state’s last, steady reliable, pollution-free electricity source. Replacing Diablo with solar will require vast tracts of land. Siting those facilities pits NRDC against staunch conservationists dead set against displacing the desert tortoise. And wind kills hundreds of thousands of birds and bats annually. But the environmental downside is that renewables need to team with fossil to keep the lights on.

California has for years been banking on an unholy alliance between renewables and load-following natural gas. Moreover, California has already blown its climate change targets because 100,000 tons of potent climate-changing methane leaked unabated into the atmosphere from the Aliso Canyon natural gas field. In a world of unreliable renewables, electricity systems require something to keep the lights on. But unlike nuclear, natural gas is a fossil fuel. California’s apparent model — Germany — has watched climate pollution increase there as decommissioning nuclear plants has led Berlin to rely more on carbon-intensive coal to backup to wind and solar.

But the green extreme is mute on rising emissions. “It makes your skin tingle,” said Damon Moglen, senior advisor with Friends of the Earth, regarding Diablo’s closure. Probably the highly-skilled and decently-paid nuclear plant workers at Diablo are feeling that way too.