Southern California Edison is retiring the San Onofre nuclear power plant. The plant has not operated since January 2012, when a radioactive leak was discovered in one of its generators. The permanent closure could put pressure on California's electrical grid in the long-term.
The California Independent System Operator, which manages the grid, does not expect statewide problems with power supply, though there could be impacts in Southern California as people crank up their air conditioners this summer.
“From an overall state, perspective I’m not concerned about energy, other than the local pocket in San Diego and south of Los Angeles,” said Steve Berberich of the California Independent System Operator, the entity that balances the state’s electric grid.
State energy regulators were already planning for the summer without the nuclear plant’s 2,000 megawatts of power. Several transmission corridors were improved so more electricity could be imported into the area and a handful of new power plants are expected to come online.
“We will get through this summer, assuming we don’t have any major catastrophes or fire,” says Berberich. “I think we can squeak by.”
Southern California’s power supplies were already constrained, as several large natural gas plants on the coast are being retrofitted or replaced. The plants use hundreds of millions of gallons of seawater for cooling, a technology that’s being phased out.
With those changes in mind, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a long-term energy plan for Southern California Edison earlier this year. The utility will add 1,400-to-1,800 megawatts of power by 2021, with the majority coming from new natural gas plants.
“The time-frame for me to be able to sleep better is really probably 2015,” said Berberich. “Let me just say, next summer I don’t expect to be quite as challenging as this summer.”
The California Public Utilities Commission is reviewing how Southern California Edison customers could be hit with the costs associated with the San Onofre plant, including maintenance and cost of replacing its power.
Decommissioning the nuclear plant could also cost billions, a price tag that’s generally covered by a trust fund. “Each of the nuclear plants has a decommissioning trust fund so over time they’re paying into that fund,” says Edward Randolph, energy division director at the California Public Utilities Commission.
“One of the questions that will come up is: the decommissioning fund for San Onofre is not fully funded yet since it wasn’t expected to go offline yet,” he said. “So an additional question would be: how do you fund the decommissioning when the trust fund is not fully funded yet.”
San Onofre is one of two nuclear power plants in the state. The other is PG&E's Diablo Canyon power plant near San Luis Obispo.