Temperatures reached 116 degrees in some urban parts of California early this month, but there were no rolling blackouts, no brownouts, no problems.
That happened with the San Onofre Nuclear Power Station producing not even one watt of electricity. For the second straight summer, the now-retired 2,250-megawatt facility is closed, and it apparently will never reopen after leaky steam generators spewed small amounts of radioactivity into the air near the Orange-San Diego county line early last year.
How could a state where brownouts were common just a dozen years ago lose enough electricity to power almost half a million homes and not even hiccup?
It’s a combination of conservation and a prudent building program. More than a decade of encouraging purchases of energy efficient appliances also has had an impact. So have the solar panels installed on many homes and businesses. But the main replacements for San Onofre are “peaker” power plants that fire up mainly when demands on the grid get high. Thousands more megawatts from them are available today than 12 years ago, mostly fueled by natural gas.
Because of the peakers coming on line this summer, there should be no need to bring power down from the Northwest, as could be done in an emergency. No need to impose brownouts on some areas to prevent blackouts in others.
By the end of this summer, five plants will come online in the City of Industry, Walnut Creek, El Segundo, Anaheim, and near Palm Desert. Together, their capacity is 2,600 megawatts, more than San Onofre’s maximum output, once the largest of any generating station in California. None of those were available a year ago, when San Onofre was also shut down and the state experienced no serious problems. So the supply situation has improved.
It’s true that peakers are not as “green” as renewable energy sources like solar and don’t help meet the state’s demand for ever more “sustainable” power, but they only run for relatively short periods.
Yes, the maximum demand at any one moment will likely be about 2.3 percent higher this summer than last, according to estimates from the Independent System Operator, which runs the state’s electric grid. But ISO’s official summer load estimate, issued during the spring, says “reserve margins under the normal peak demand scenario are… 33.3 percent for the (statewide) system, 31 percent for Southern California.”
ISO regulations demand only a 15 percent reserve margin, which means that even in the region most directly affected by the San Onofre outage, there is today double the reserve margin needed to keep machines, commerce and households running.
Add to that several large solar thermal power plants nearing completion in the state’s desert areas, and there’s definitely no impending power shortage.
And yet, the state Public Utilities Commission keeps pushing for more peaker plants that would cost consumers billions of dollars.
Immediately after San Onofre’s retirement was announced, the commission and the big utilities sounded a most likely unjustified alarm. One recent PUC decision says the San Diego area will need at least 298 megawatts more peak power by 2018, enough to fuel about 60,000 homes. This revived an application to build a peaker of about that size near the Mexican border, costing customers of San Diego Gas & Electric Co. $80 million to $90 million per year over 20 years, almost $2 billion altogether.
No one says that power will be needed for sure; it is, after all, just a peaker plant, reserve power by its very definition. Should rooftop solar photovoltaic power capacity grow appreciably, it wouldn’t even be needed four or five years from now.
And rooftop solar becomes more viable every day. The Los Angeles Department of Water & Power just last month authorized a 150 megawatt rooftop program at a cost of about $500 million, power that will produce no pollution. The program can be quadrupled within the next two years, and there’s no reason something similar can’t be done in San Diego, San Jose and many other places where the sun shines most days.
The bottom line: Every piece of objective information available says there’s no need to panic and build more polluting conventional power plants, even if the PUC pushes it.