Debate over the future of California’s contentious Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is raising the tricky question of whether it’s worth the money to keep an existing nuclear facility in operation.
A complete answer to that question, Grist reported in a post late last month, depends on knowledge of the future costs of keeping a plant like Diablo Canyon humming, and an “apples-to-apples gold standard for the value of intermittent solar and wind generation”.
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Diablo currently supplies 9% of California’s electricity, and is scheduled for closure in 2024, Grist notes. Its power is currently very cheap, in the range of $27 per megawatt-hour, because its construction costs were paid off years ago. However, “costs will rise if it doesn’t shut down in 2024 as planned,” since “a California regulatory committee has required the plant to build a multi-billion-dollar water recycling system, so that it doesn’t kill fish eggs when it draws water out of the ocean.”
Another, “economic bullet aimed at Diablo Canyon,” Grist states, is that the price of renewable energy continues to drop, as “Californians aren’t using any more electricity each year, and the state keeps subsidizing more renewable power.”
But there’s still no clear answer on whether renewables will be cheaper in the long run, correspondent Nathanael Johnson contends. “Energy wonks just haven’t agreed on a good way of figuring how much we’ll need to pay for whatever batteries, extra transmission lines, or new pumped hydro systems will be required to balance out intermittent renewables,” he writes. “That’s a really intense methodological logjam right now,” said Alex Gilbert, co-founder of the SparkLibrary energy research platform.
Through the lens of the climate crisis, Johnson believes it’s “a little silly” to pit nuclear versus renewables in California because “there’s already an abundance of electricity in the state.” Citing UC-Berkeley energy economist Lucas Davis, he concludes that “if we really want to fight climate change on the cheap, we should be building clean power plants in places where electricity demand is actually growing—like India.”