Friday, January 31, 2014

San Onofre becomes No Sans-O, No C-Free Energy ...

Southern California Edison announced the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) on June 7, 2013. It was a sad day for me, since I worked at SONGS from 1983 until 2010 and have many, many fond memories. The people working there were/are top-notch, and deserve a lot of respect for the decades of safely, efficiently providing affordable electric power to our region. Had the construction of the replacement steam generators been flawless, the station could have continued producing oxygen-free (sans-O) carbon-free (C-Free) energy to the Southern California grid for another twenty years, if not longer.

SONGS, because it did not oxidize carbon-based fuels to generate power, produced zero carbon dioxide "pollutant" greenhouse gas while providing 2200+ megawatts when both units 2 and 3 were operating. A modern combined-cycle plant produces 345g/kWh of CO2, which translates to about 760,000 kilograms (or 838 short tons) of carbon dioxide produced per hour to fully replace the 2-unit power from SONGS.

Faulty replacement steam generators caused both units to shut down early in 2012. The public debate over SONGS during the next eighteen months made it clear nuclear power has no long-term future in California. Fusion power may eventually prove a viable replacement, but it always seems 10 to 20 years away (and has been for the last thirty years).

While replacing a few large "bulk" baseline energy sources, like SONGS, with a large number of small renewable sources is possible, it involves a massive, expensive realignment of the existing energy grid away from the current "one-way electricity flow" model (from generators through transmission lines to distribution substations to consumers).  The future grid will feature "two-way" electrical flow, with thousands (if not millions) of "micro" "genersumers" or "consumerators" that can supply or absorb energy. Bulk electrical providers will still exist, but their contribution will significantly decline. Micro- or mini-grids will be common - small localized grids that can independently provide power to neighborhoods, business parks, schools, universities, etc. while maintaining a capability to connect the larger "macro" power grid when needed.

So, maybe closing SONGS is for the best. Large electricity generation stations may be the modern equivalent to the battleships at the start of World War II - they were already obsolete, but those in power just didn't realize it. Pearl Harbor shocked them into a fuller, sobering understanding. The June 2013 closing of SONGS could deliver a similar epiphany to our leaders over how our national electrical grid must evolve into a more resilient, secure, "greener" (and - alas - expensive) energy future.