The California Independent System Operator Corporation (CAISO) issued a Flex Alert from July 1 to July 2 for Northern California asking consumers to reduce their energy usage as power plants remained on high alert last week due to the record temperatures seen in this month’s heat wave.
In the 1980s, California’s population grew by 25 percent; in the 1990s, it grew by 12 percent. By the the turn of the century, California’s demand for electricity had moved beyond its generating capacity and California was left dependent on imports for a large portion of its electricity.
With California’s large population of 38 million expected to reach 55 million by 2050, many are concerned about the sustainability of the energy sources on which the state relies. According to California Energy Commission data, in-state energy generation plus imports totaled 285 billion kilowatt hours (kWh), including 90.8 from gas, 36.7 from nuclear, 42.7 from hydro, 12.9 from geothermal, 8.6 from wind and solar, and 5.8 from biomass.
The World Nuclear Association says California played a large role in the development of nuclear power in the United States. A 2011 report by the California Council on Science and Technology found that nuclear power "provides reliable base-load power with very low emissions and can offset variability issues incurred by renewables.”
However, the report states nuclear power also “faces obstacles with current public policy and public opinion.” In spite of its early influence and potential as an energy source, concerns with the safety of nuclear energy have led many Californians to fight against it.
Currently, California has only one nuclear power plant in operation: Diablo Canyon, near San Luis Obispo, owned by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. The San Onofre plant, near San Diego, went offline in January 2012.
State law prohibits the construction of new nuclear power plants in California until a means of disposal for the high-level nuclear waste is approved. Bills to repeal this law have been voted down.
“California is riddled with earthquake faults, and both the San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear power plants are located near known faults,” the California Nuclear Initiative, an organization seeking to shut down all nuclear power plants in the state, stated on their website. “Although an earthquake or tsunami of the magnitude to seriously damage California’s nuclear plants is certainly unlikely, the potential costs, both human and financial, are entirely too great to risk.”
For what it lacks in nuclear energy production, however, California makes up for in hydroelectric power. The state has nearly 400 hydro plants, totaling 14,000 MW of capacity.
Yet, there are potential drawbacks to hydroelectricity as well. According to the California Energy Commission, these include the following:
Water resource impacts such as changes in stream flows, reservoir surface areas, water temperature, and oxygen content; biological impacts such as the possible displacement of terrestrial habitat with a new lake environment, alteration of fish migration patterns, and other impacts on aquatic life due to changes in water quality and quantity. Large facilities have caused environmental damage including reservoir flooding, sedimentation, destruction of fish and wildlife habitats.
Additionally, hydroelectric power may be less available during the months when it is needed most -- Summer. In the search for green energy, California may need to keep looking.