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Calif. Wonders About Energy Future After Nuclear Plant Closes


In Southern California, the power grid is always a hot topic. It's a part of the country that is all too familiar with the rolling blackouts. And now there is more reason for concern about the region's capacity to generate electricity. The San Onofre nuclear power plant is shutting down for good, thanks to worn-out parts. It's been off-line for more than a year after a pipe was found leaking radioactive steam. At its peak, San Onofre provided power for 1.4 million homes.

NPR's Nathan Rott reports people in Southern California are wondering what's going to take its place.


NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The twin domes of San Onofre nuclear power plant are a fixture here at Trestles Beach. Like the beach volleyball courts and slow breaking waves, they're just another part of the surfing Mecca in the part that locals like Sasha Kottmeier had gotten used to. He's here at the beach eating dinner with family and friends, like he does every week. And today, they're not just talking about the surf, though. They're talking about San Onofre and what happens next.

SASHA KOTTMEIERE: I know that it supplies an unbelievable amount of power to Southern California. To shut it down, where is the new power going to come from?


ROTT: That's a question that's not just being asked on the beach.

STEVE BERBERICH: Well, San Onofre was a critical asset on the system. It provided approximately 2,250 megawatts on the system.

ROTT: Steve Berberich is chief executive of the California Independent System Operator. They keep the lights on for some 30 million Californians by balancing in maintaining the state's massive power grid. On a hot summer day, when there's the highest demand, San Onofre provided about five percent of that grid's total power. To deal with that situation, power companies have retrofitted some older gas power plants in the area and have been relying more heavily on transmission lines to import power.

But that's only a short-term fix and it's a vulnerable one, says Steve Conroy. He's with Southern California Edison, the power company that runs San Onofre.

STEVE CONROY: When you continue to move power from long distances along transmission lines, you're at risk of things that you can't control, like wildfires or transmission constraints - power plants that go off-line 'cause they will go off-line.

ROTT: And all of this makes people in Southern California skittish. It wasn't that long ago that large swaths of the state went dark with rolling blackouts. That was back in the days of Enron and the California power crisis. So when power companies say the supply will be tight, like they're doing now, people think of the worst, which shouldn't really be the case, says Bill Powers. He evaluates energy systems for industry and government and nonprofits.

BILL POWERS: They are presenting our situation as kind of: There's sun above our heads at the moment, but there's clouds on the horizon. That is not the case. We've got megawatts to burn. No pun intended.

ROTT: In the Los Angeles Basin, Powers says, they've already added almost 2,000 megawatts of generation in the last six months. The infrastructure is there. Beyond that, he says, energy efficient appliances - LED lights and people's changing attitudes - have tempered demand.


ROTT: Which is something you'll hear on Trestle's Beach. Tom Cramet is sitting around a fire pit with his daughter and some friends. Just down the beach, San Onofre's twin domes are glowing gold in the sunset. Cramet grew up next to the plant. He even wrote a report about it in fifth grade. But he's trying to see its closure in a positive light.

TOM CRAMET: We use a lot of energy as a nation. And so, these sorts of things are going to cause us to use it more carefully.

ROTT: Which is what everybody is hoping for the summer ahead.

Nathan Rott, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott