Did Anyone Notice? Southern California Just Went Through Two of the Hottest Summers on Record – Without … Nukes!

by on December 21, 2015 · 4 comments

in California, Culture, Economy, Energy, Environment, History, San Diego


Anti-nuke protesters outside NRC hearing in 2011.

San Onofre rally 3-11-12 crowd best

Anti-nuke rally at San Onofre, March 11, 2012.

Now that we’re in a wet, cold Southern California winter, it’s instructive to look back to that long, hot summer and the very warm fall that this region experienced in order to understand that the summer of 2015 – it turns out – was the hottest summer on record. On earth.

This fact made headlines – summer of 2015 was Earth’s hottest on record (Washington Post / September 17, 2015):

Temperatures soared about 1.5 degrees warmer than the long-term average, passing 1998 and 2014, which were the previous hottest summers on record depending on the dataset. These records date back to the late 1800s.

And as noted above – until this year – the summer of 2014 was the hottest summer on record (USA Today) .

So, taken together, Southern California just went through the two hottest summers on record.

And we – the collective SoCal populace – did this without nukes. Southern California has survived the searing, suffering heat of two summers – and did it without nuclear power. Did anyone notice?

Do you mean that with all the increased electrical usage due to the heat, all those air-conditioning units, all those fans –  all that electricity that people in Southern California use to stay cool, we didn’t have any overloads, break-downs, electricity crises as we had in years earlier? What? No black outs, no rolling brown outs – or anything of that nature? Nope, and we did it all without nuclear power.

Well, sort of.

But, first – as you probably know, ever since January 2012, the San Onofre nuclear power plant has been shut down. There’s only one nuke plant left in California and that’s Diablo Canyon up north. With San Onofre’s closure, California energy generated by nuclear power was cut in half.

So, in a sense then, Southern California has been without nuclear power since San Onofre’s 2 generators were shut down after inspections found unsafe premature wear on thousands of tubes in replacement steam generators that had been installed in 2010 and 2011. In 2013, Southern California Edison – the major owner of San Onofre – announced that it was permanently retiring both reactor units.

When it was operating, San Onofre’s annual energy output made up about 20% of Southern California’s electrical usage – it generated 2,200 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 1.4 million homes. LA Times Unit 1 at the plant operated from 1968 to 1992; Unit 2 was started in 1983; Unit 3 began in 1984.  Then in 2009 and 2010, upgrades designed to last 20 years were made to the two units – and these are the upgrades to the steam generators that were found to be unsafe and a danger to the more than 8 million people living within 50 miles.  wikipedia

But there was a time, not too long ago, when nuclear power was being touted as the clean, cheap energy source that we needed.  It was once “predicted that meeting California’s growing energy needs would require a nuclear power plant every 50 miles along its coast.” CBS Sacramento

Currently of course, San Onofre is in the initial stages of preparation to be decommissioned. The parent company of Southern California Edison owns 78.2% of the plant, SDG&E owns 20%, with the City of Riverside owning the last 1.8%. Southern California Edison (SCE) and San Diego Gas and Electric are two of the largest utilities in Southern California – but there are others, such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Before San Onofre’s shutdown, SDG&E’s electricity sources had a substantial nuclear one – 15% in 2006, for example. That same year, SCE included nuclear for 17% of its sources. (PG&E is a northern California utility and drew 23% from nuclear sources – mainly Diablo Canyon.)

Calif energy sources graphIn contrast, after San Onofre’s closure, SDG&E listed 0% from nuclear energy sources.

Calif energy SDGE source graf

Graph from SDG&E

It appears that San Diegans are not using juice supplied by nukes. It’s a different story – probably – with Southern California Edison. (Could not find stats on current breakdown of SCE energy mix.) And the State of California – as a whole – is still using nuclear power. In 2014 nuclear power made up 8.5% of California’s energy mix.  Yet this is down from 2006, when the state used nearly 13%.

Calif energy 2014 sources

Source: Calif Energy Commission

How have we done it? How did SoCal survive these hot summers without nukes? A couple of years ago, the Washington Post asked: California is closing a huge nuclear plant. So what will replace it?

[H]ow [is] Southern California’s going to generate enough electricity to keep the lights on without those two reactors. … The Energy Information Administration says that the state has gone on a building frenzy ever since the reactors went down … adding 2,502 megawatts of capacity over the past year, mainly natural gas and some solar.

That’s it. To compensate for the loss of San Onofre (and for hydro-electrical power to be down due to the drought), California has been increasing its electricity imports from Arizona and other states. Now, out of state imports account for 25% – and they also account for about half of our state’s  greenhouse-gas emissions from energy sources – the 5 out-of-state coal plants. In 2013, Southern California Edison reportedly was confident “that it can maintain power supplies unless there’s an exceptionally hot summer or wildfires that disrupt transmission lines.”

But there’s also been growth in solar energy sources. In 2006, solar accounted for just 0.20% state-wide, but in 2014 it was 4.2% of the total energy mix. (See graphs.)

Solar has been growing. In fact, in May 2014, during peak times for energy use (between 11 a.m. and noon) solar supplied 14 % of the state’s total power, as compared to 6% a year earlier. San Gabriel Valley Tribune:

On June 1 of 2014, California recorded a record hourly peak of 4,767 megawatts of solar electricity to the grid. 

Naturally, many anticipated the issue. In May of 2014, the Public Utility Commission gave the authorization for Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric to find ways to plug that gap left by the closure of San Onofre. The utilities were directed to obtain power from renewable sources – in part  and from conservation and storage.

This translates to more coal-fired plants. The decision was criticized by environmental groups who said this raises the risk of “new, gas-fired power plants that are often built in low-income communities of color,” and for example added that existing gas plants are contributing to ozone pollution that leaves the Los Angeles basin with some of the dirtiest air in the country.

Even though, clearly California – with Gov. Brown at Paris burnishing its credentials – has been at the head of the movement away from fossil-fuels, still solar, wind and other green energy sources are only a fraction of the overall energy generation in the state. Yahoo Associated Press

Yet, in 2013, California’s three largest utilities sourced nearly 23 percent of their power from renewable sources. Christian Science Monitor

The Governor has called for 50% by 2030. And the City of San Diego has called for 100% by 2035.

What the last two hot summers have shown us is that we can survive without nukes. Anti-nuclear activists and scientists have been saying this for decades – and now the people of Southern California have lived it.


The following reports go into detail of changes over the last years since the closure of San Onofre.

Total System Power for 2012: Changes from 2011

California Energy Almanac

With generally low hydroelectric availability in 2012, natural gas generation in California increased by 33 percent to 121,716 GWh, an increase of 30,000 GWh over the previous year. Coinciding with the low hydroelectric availability, Southern California Edison permanently ceased power operations at the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS) due to concerns over the leaking steam generator tubes that released radioactive steam. The loss of electric generation from SONGS alone accounted for approximately nine percent, or 18,000 GWh, of California’s total in-state generation. The SONGS outage reduced nuclear generation in California by about 50 percent. These two factors, lower in-state hydroelectric availability and the SONGS outage, were the primary reasons for the 33 percent increase in natural gas generation in 2012.


Total System Power for 2014: Changes from 2013California Energy Almanac

California’s in-state electric generation from coal for 2014 is virtually the same as the previous year at 1,011 GWh. One coal-fired plant, ACE Cogeneration (108 MW nameplate capacity), was retired in October 2014, leaving three coal-fired plants in California, Argus Cogeneration (55 MW), Rio Bravo Jasmin (38 MW), and Rio Bravo Poso (38 MW), and one petroleum coke-fired plant, the Los Angeles Refinery Calciner (36 MW).

Nuclear generation from California’s remaining facility, PG&E’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DCPP), was down slightly in 2014 due to scheduled refueling and maintenance outages for both Unit 1 and Unit 2. According to PG&E, in a typical year, at least one of Diablo Canyon’s two reactor units undergoes a planned refueling and maintenance outage. However, once every five years both units are refueled in the same year due to their separate operating schedules. Such an occurrence took place in 20145. DCPP generated 17,027 GWh in 2014, down 833 GWh from 2013, due primarily to the scheduled work. Diablo Canyon made up 8.6 percent of in-state generation and provided 5.8 percent of the California’s total electric generation requirement in 2014. Not counting offline periods for scheduled refueling and planned maintenance, DCPP has maintained similar levels of output since 2001, the start of QFER reporting. The shutdown of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in 2011 did not impact generation by DCPP, because DCPP is a baseload unit that is usually operating and the two plants serve different areas. Nuclear energy imports from Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Arizona accounted for an additional 8,193 GWh in 2014, bringing the total generation served by nuclear energy to 25,221 GWh, representing 8.6 percent of total system power.

Wind facilities in California increased their generation by 2.4 percent (303 GWh) in 2014 reaching 12,997 GWh. Wind generation capacity increased by 96 MW to 5,896 MW by December 31, 2014. Wind generation imports from the Northwest were at similar levels to 2013 with 10,151 GWh for 2014 along with an additional 766 GWh from the Southwest resulting in a total of 23,914 GWh of wind generation serving the state’s need in 2014, about six percent less than 2013.

Solar photovoltaic energy also experienced significant commercial-scale capacity additions in 2014 with more than 2,000 MW added over the year. By the close of 2014, in-state solar capacity was 5,939 MW. Annual in-state energy totals for solar more than doubled to 10,557 GWh from 4,291 GWh in 2013. There were 45 utility-scale solar capacity additions in California during the year. These include, but are not limited to, Mojave Solar Thermal Project in San Bernardino County, Genesis Solar Thermal Project in Riverside County, Centinela Solar PV Project in Imperial County, Regular Solar PV in Kern County, and Western Antelope Blue Sky Ranch in Los Angeles County.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Bearded OBcean December 22, 2015 at 10:26 am

A minor point, but taken together, because global summer temperatures were among the highest on record, it does not necessarily follow that SoCal experienced the same. While it may be the case, it isn’t necessarily.


CliffHanger December 22, 2015 at 1:13 pm

Good point.
But some moron might try standing in Congress with a snowball as a serious debate counter to human-accelerated global warming, because, well … it’s cold where he is!


Chili Willy January 5, 2016 at 10:46 am

I remember bk in the day, 50s, nobody wore wet suits, and we didn’t lock our doors. I wonder why? Also, you could look to the east and see the snow on Palomar and the kLaguna mts in the winter. Go figure.10


Richard Simpkins September 11, 2016 at 6:52 pm

“The Energy Information Administration says that the state has gone on a building frenzy ever since the reactors went down … adding 2,502 megawatts of capacity over the past year, mainly natural gas and some solar.”

In other words, whenever you shut down a nuclear plant, it is replaced by natural gas (a fossil fuel). Yes, it burn cleaner than coal, but it’s also way dirtier than nuclear. I’m not in favor of building new nuclear plants (because it’s so expensive and the payoff is distant), but keeping existing plants open makes sense, at least until we can replace its output with clean energy. When a natural gas plant replaces a coal plant, that’s good. When it replaces nuclear? That makes little sense.


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