California Needs To Go Nuclear – Again
California policymakers have indicated that when the state converts to a renewables-only energy framework in 2045, wind and sun will be the only sources permitted. Categorical renewables such as hydroelectric power and nuclear will not be considered. Narrowing the potential sources for electricity generation this way makes the goal nearly if not fully impossible to reach. But most lawmakers seem to be unperturbed by the obstacles that are sure to arise.
While the Democrats fixate on windmills and solar panels, Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham, a Republican representing San Luis Obispo County and part of Santa Barbara, has introduced a constitutional amendment that would require nuclear energy and hydropower to be classified as renewables.
Cunningham acknowledges his proposal is a “longshot.” But generating enough power to meet consumer demand with only wind and solar is an even greater longshot.
Combined, wind and solar account for roughly 23% of the state’s electricity. Natural gas, hydro, coal, oil, and nuclear, all of which are to be retired under 2018’s Senate Bill 100, account for more than 51% of California’s generation portfolio. Boosting that 23% share to a full 100% by 2045 won’t be easy. Getting to just 50% by 2025, as demanded by the law, will be just as difficult. Reaching the 30% threshold by next year just seems out of the question.
Yes, California tripled its use of renewables over roughly the last decade. But as many have already said, that was the easy part. As of now, the technology isn’t ready to move on to the hard part of achieving 100% coverage. That’s not to say it won’t. But it’s simply not possible to predict when that will happen with any degree of certainty. Legislation, regulation, arrogance, and hope can’t expedite technology’s growth. So what happens when 2045 arrives and the renewables can’t get the job done?
Even if the technology is available, there are no guarantees the renewables will be cheaper or even as cheap as fossil fuels. Don’t make the mistake of dismissing this concern. California already has the highest electricity prices in the lower 48. The climate policies that are already in place have imposed steep economic costs on consumers. It can’t be mere coincidence that electricity prices grew sharply during the period in which renewable use was tripling. According to Forbes energy writer Michael Shellenberger, prices “rose nearly six times more (28%) in California than in the rest of the country (5%)” between 2011 and 2018.
Of course the poorest bear the heaviest burden. And they need to be ready to carry an even larger load going into the renewables era.
The extensive footprint that wind and solar stomp into the landscape shouldn’t be overlooked, either. According to Phys.org, solar and wind power need 90-100 times more space than natural-gas plants to produce the same amount of energy. Just to reach 80% renewables by 2050, as much as 10% of California’s land would be have to be taken up by wind and solar farms, and dams, says ScienceDirect. And if power producers can no longer use hydro, how much bigger will the footprint be?
Yes, California is a big state. It’s easy to think no one will miss a 10% slice of land. But remember this: The radical elements demanding that fossil fuels be banned intersect and overlap with those who oppose building anything anywhere. It’s not only conceivable, it’s a near certainty they will fight the renewables projects that will be needed in the absence of conventional energy sources. So we ask again: Then what?
No energy source is 100% green nor fully carbon-free. Fossil fuels are burned in both the manufacture and transportation of parts for, and construction of, wind and solar farms. While they have no smokestacks, neither do nuclear plants. Those typically fat structures on some nuclear sites that look as if they are blowing out nasty clouds of exhaust are cooling towers releasing steam. A nuclear plant’s carbon emissions are actually only one-quarter of those from a solar facility. Even the federal government admits atomic power is clean and sustainable.
Despite nuclear energy’s benefits, the state’s last remaining nuclear plant, the Diablo Canyon facility, is scheduled to close in 2025. With it might go Californians’ access to a First World power supply.
Kerry Jackson is a fellow with the Center for California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.