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  • Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, courtesy PG&E

    National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Diablo Canyon, Climate Change, Drought, and Energy Policy

    By Peter Gleick, President Emeritus and Chief Scientist

    June 24, 2016

    The announcement that Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) will close the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant when its current operating licenses expire in 2025 has caused what can only be described as consternation mixed with occasional conniptions among the nuclear industry and some strongly pro-nuclear groups.

    That’s understandable. Diablo Canyon is aging, but is not the oldest nuclear plant in the fleet and PG&E could have chosen to push for a renewal of the license to continue operations for many more years. Diablo Canyon’s two reactors are also California’s last operating nuclear plants, following the closure many years ago of Rancho Seco near Sacramento, and more recently, the last of the San Onofre reactors. As such, the closure is symbolic of the broader woes of the nuclear power industry in the United States, which has been unable to build new reactors and is seeing the current reactors being shuttered, one by one.

    The decision to phase out Diablo also rankles those who see all non-carbon energy sources as critical in the fight against the real threat of climate change. This has led to an internecine dispute among those who claim the mantle of “environmentalist,” who are legitimately concerned about climate, but who split on their positions around the pros and cons of nuclear power.

    I get it. The climate threat is the most urgent one facing the planet and shutting down major non-carbon energy sources makes it that much harder to meet carbon reduction goals. But old nuclear plants have to be retired and replaced at some point, simply due to age, economics, and updated environmental challenges. It would be great if there was a new generation of replacement reactors that was safe, cost-effective, and reliable and if there was a satisfactory resolution to the problem of nuclear wastes and accumulating spent fuel. But at the moment, there isn’t. The good news is there are other non-carbon alternatives available.

    And Diablo Canyon faced a unique set of problems, including the need in the next few years to replace its old once-thru ocean cooling system with a far costlier, but more environmentally friendly system, challenges with steam generators and a growing risk of leaks, the long-standing earthquake risk at the site, and cheaper alternatives. Even with the sunk costs at Diablo Canyon, these challenges made it clear that cheaper options exist and “that California’s new energy policies will significantly reduce the need for Diablo Canyon’s electricity output.”

    Moreover, the claim that current nuclear energy is cheap is false: even at Diablo Canyon – never a cheap nuclear plant – additional updates to address existing problems could cost a massive additional $10 billion.  As Peter Bradford, a former member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission said,

    “The unraveling of the [hoped for nuclear] renaissance was not a surprise to anyone who understood the workings of the power markets.”

    Diablo isn’t shutting down tomorrow. The plan gives the utility nearly a decade to phase out the plant and replace it with renewable energy and energy efficiency. As the official announcementnotes:

    “The Joint Proposal would replace power produced by two nuclear reactors at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant (DCPP) with a cost-effective, greenhouse gas free portfolio of energy efficiency, renewables and energy storage.”

    This time frame is important. When San Onofre closed its last reactor in 2012, with no formal replacement plan in place, there was a short-term spike in natural gas consumption (worsened by the simultaneous arrival of a multi-year drought, which cut hydroelectricity generation) and an increase in California’s greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear proponents cherry pick this point as evidence that shutting Diablo will similarly lead to an increase in emissions. But within a couple of years, the rapid construction of non-carbon wind and solar systems made up for San Onofre’s lost electricity, and natural gas use — excluding excess natural gas burned to make up for lost hydroelectricity due to the drought –dropped again. The Figure below shows total non-fossil fuel electricity generation in California from 2001-2015 (solid red line) and what it would have been without the drought (dotted red line). Without the drought, expansion of new solar and wind completely made up for San Onofre’s closure.

    Total non-fossil fuel electricity generation with (solid red line) and without the drought (dashed red line). Data from US EIA.

    Total non-fossil fuel electricity generation with (solid red line) and without the drought (dashed red line). Data from US EIA.

    With the longer timeframe to prepare for closing Diablo Canyon, and with the specific agreement to accelerate investment in renewables, there is no reason California’s carbon reduction targets can’t be met. Will they? We don’t know: that ultimately depends on the nature and timing of efforts to continue California’s transition to non-carbon energy.

    But even this argument misses the key point: While it is certainly far better from a climate perspective to replace old fossil fuel plants rather than old nuclear plants, even old nuclear plants have to be replaced eventually. We should keep them open as long as feasible from an economic, environmental, and safety point of view, but when the decision is made to replace them, make sure other non-carbon generation and energy efficiency options are part of the decision.

    That’s what happened here and it is a model for the future.

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    This blog was originally published on National Geographic ScienceBlogs.

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  • SaltonSea2_lg

    Fits and Starts at the Salton Sea

    By Michael Cohen, Senior Research Associate

    May 16, 2016

    Daniel M. Edwards
    Daniel M. Edwards

    The fortunes and prospects of California’s Salton Sea have ebbed and flowed over the years. Currently, the Sea is enjoying renewed attention and funding, after almost a decade of neglect and indifference. The State of California is poised to dedicate $80 million to efforts to protect and revitalize (a small portion of) the Salton Sea, prompted in large part by a fast-approaching tipping point that will see a dramatic shrinking of the Sea, devastating its rich ecosystem and imperiling the health of hundreds of thousands of people in the region.

    …»

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  • global-drought-201602_GPCC_SPI03_edited-400x198

    National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Global Droughts: A Bad Year

    By Peter Gleick, President

    April 27, 2016

    Populations around the world face many severe water challenges, from scarcity to contamination, from political or violent conflict to economic disruption. As populations and economies grow, peak water pressures on existing renewable water resources also tend to grow up to the point that natural scarcity begins to constrain the options of water planners and managers. At this point, the effects of natural fluctuations in water availability in the form of extreme weather events become even more potentially disruptive than normal. In particular, droughts begin to bite deeply into human well-being.

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  • 2016-03-25-1458940037-4607399-20130720IMG_6479-thumb

    Huffpost Green: An Open Letter From Peter Gleick: My Transition at the Pacific Institute

    By Peter Gleick, President

    March 25, 2016

    As readers of this column may already know, earlier this week the Pacific Institute and I announced an important and exciting change: on July 1st after 28 years as co-founder and President of the Institute, I will be moving to a new position as President Emeritus and Chief Scientist. A wide search for a new president has been launched.

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  • conflict-chronology-update-590x431

    National Geographic ScienceBlogs: Water, Security, and Conflict: Violence over Water in 2015

    By Peter Gleick, President

    February 17, 2016

    Since its founding in 1987, the Pacific Institute has worked to understand the links between water resources, environmental issues, and international security and conflict. This has included early analytical assessments (such as a 1987 Ambio paper  and this one from the journal Climatic Change) of the risks between climate change and security through changes in access to Arctic resources, food production, and water resources, as well as the ongoing Water Conflict Chronology – an on-line database, mapping system, and timeline of all known water-related conflicts. In 2014, an analysis of the links between drought, climate change, water resources, and the conflict in Syria was published in the American Meteorological Society journal Weather, Climate, and Society.

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  • groundwater-slider-final

    Moving from Theory to Practice: A Synthesis of Lessons about Incentive-Based Instruments for Freshwater Management

    by Heather Cooley, Michael Cohen, and Matthew Heberger

    February 8, 2016

    There has been growing interest in applying incentive-based instruments, such as pollution charges and tradeable permits, to address the twin challenges of accessing enough freshwater to meet our needs while also preserving the well-being of freshwater ecosystems. These instruments use direct or indirect financial incentives as motivation to reallocate water or to reduce the health and environmental risks posed by an activity. But what do we know about how they have actually performed?

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    Huffington Post: The Most Important Water Stories of 2015

    By Peter Gleick, Brett Walton, and J. Carl Ganter

    February 4, 2016

    Water was a Top Risk on the 2015 Global Agenda

    In early 2015, participants at the World Economic Forum, a who’s who of the political and business elite, ranked water crises as the top global risk. Water was also a key factor in the adoption by the United Nations General Assembly of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a blueprint for international development over the next 15 years. Ensuring safe drinking water and sanitation for all by 2030 is one of six water goals for the SDGs. In December at the UN climate change conference in Paris, world leaders acknowledged the instrumental role that water will play in a warming planet. Water security was included in the response plans of most nations and was at the core of numerous debates and side agreements. 

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  • Partners-Perspective5

    Sanition and Water for All Partner Perspectives: One Year On: Companies and Respect for the Human Rights to Water and Sanitation

    By Mai-Lan Ha

    January 29, 2016

    2015 was a historic year for sustainable development. The world came together and adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a new framework that will guide development for the next 15 years. The 17 SDGs cover a range of topics from health to education to equality and environmental protection. Underpinning the achievement of these goals is the importance of water. As such, water has its own dedicated goal (Goal 6) and is also integrated into a number of other related goals, such as those on health, wellbeing, and biodiversity. Critical to achievement of SDG6 will be the important role that businesses must play and the need to ensure that the rights to water and sanitation are met. As such, a year ago, the CEO Water Mandate and Shift released Guidance for Companies on Respecting the Rights to Water and Sanitation. The Guidance is the first comprehensive document that lays out how businesses can meet their responsibilities to respect the rights by incorporating them into existing water management practices, policies, and company cultures. 

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  • 2015-12-15-1450218820-274802-17717eiffeltowerpv-thumb

    Huffington Post: The Historic, Unprecedented, Landmark Climate Agreement

    By Peter Gleick, President

    December 15, 2015

    Historic. Unprecedented. Landmark. Also, the world’s greatest diplomatic success. A turning point for the world. This is some of the language used to describe the global climate agreement reached this week in Paris. The excitement about this agreement is palpable, for good reason. The Paris Agreement marks a fundamental turning point in the future of the planet, a conscious vote by the world community to acknowledge that climate change represents an “urgent and potentially irreversible threat to human societies and the planet” and to try, finally, to avoid leaving our children and grandchildren with a dangerously changed global climate.

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  • 2015-12-10-1449790067-9904346-NYTimes10281956climate-thumb

    Huffington Post: Climate Science in 1956 and 2015

    By Peter Gleick, President

    December 10, 2015

    Despite the apparent inability of many of our current policy makers to accept the scientific reality of climate change, the science is not new. Fifty-nine years ago, on October 28, 1956, the New York Times ran a story in their Science in Review section entitled “Warmer climate on the earth may be due to more carbon dioxide in the air.” The full text of that article is reprinted below and is available from the New York Times archive, here.

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