Opinion: The way we manage energy needs to change


Information provided by California’s Independent System Operator. Infographic credit: Sylvia Hoyt.

Modern society would not exist without the progression in energy-generation technologies over the last 200 years. California’s push towards 100 percent renewable energy is neglecting the tenets of reliability and longevity that have gotten us this far.  

California relies on a combination of energy sources: natural gas burning power plants, hydroelectric generators, solar, wind, and nuclear and geothermal plants. This diversity makes electricity a reliable utility. California has developed this broad energy portfolio and is able to control the kind of energy generated in the state. However, national agencies which control funds continue to invest in new generation sources, like nuclear fusion, instead of tripling down on improving systems that already exist. 

Fusion can revolutionize our relationship with energy because it would generate electricity efficiently and without pollutants, but is still a long way from being a source of energy. For the first time in December 2022, after seventy years of work, a nuclear fusion reaction generated a net increase in energy — the combination of tritium and deuterium atoms released energy collected by scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. This was groundbreaking, but fusion is nowhere near useful yet.  

“Fusion would be a great idea. But in the meantime, we’ve got to concentrate on those [solutions] that are market-based, reasonable and clean,” said Richard Zahner, a former nuclear power plant engineer, in an interview with The Urban Legend.

In 2018, California passed Senate Bill 100 which sets a 2045 goal of powering all retail and state agency electricity needs with renewable and zero-carbon resources, like solar and wind. This goal encourages a timely transition away from energy generation sources that pollute the environment. However, we are neglecting established and reliable green energy sources, like nuclear power, to do so.

For example, nuclear power plants generate consistent and large quantities of power. California’s only nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, generates eight to 12% of the total electricity used in California (2,237 megawatts). Nuclear power plants harness the energy released by the decay of radioactive uranium and plutonium to heat water, spin a steam turbine, and generate electricity. The problem with nuclear energy has been a growing social movement away from anything nuclear because other nuclear technologies (like atomic bombs) can be harmful to people.

“The actual safety record of nuclear power plants [are] very good,” Zahner said. “[But] the possibilities of a serious accident are real.” 

Out of 667 reactors built worldwide since 1954, only three major incidents have occurred. And, as Oliver Yeaman, staff writer for The Urban Legend reported this fall, coal power plants cause 161 deaths per terawatt hour of energy generated, compared to nuclear’s 0.04 deaths.

Zahner said, “From a practical standpoint, it makes great sense to use every resource you’ve got.” Instead of building more power plants that leverage nuclear power, the United States is investing in fusion energy research that has not yet supported the energy grid. 

Laurent Divol, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, argues that financing academia pushes society forwards, particularly in areas like fusion research. Commercial endeavors would not survive because the problem’s complexity makes it expensive and experiments span decades. Only consistent government funding can generate progress. While hopeful about the technology, both experts weighed in that nuclear fusion is not a near-term green energy solution. 

So what is a reasonable solution? 

One problem with the way California currently generates electricity is that we have an established solar energy system, and the sun only shines less than half of the time. What happens at night when we rely on solar energy? Well, the natural gas power plants fire up. Renewable energy is the major source during daytime hours, but natural gas is the main provider at night because it can be generated regardless of external conditions. 

There are viable solutions that would support a green energy grid that has a surplus of electricity during the day and no source at night, but they come at a cost. As predicted in a US Energy Administration study conducted in 2022, battery storage will cost an average of $128.55 per megawatt hour. For context, the city of San Francisco uses 18,000 megawatt hours per day, according to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Solar energy could be generated for $36.49/Mwh and stored in these chemical batteries to be discharged to the grid overnight. In comparison, nuclear power is projected to cost $88.24/Mwh. Combined-cycle power plants which have both a steam turbine and a gas turbine are projected to cost $39.94/MWh while emitting half the CO2 emissions of traditional natural gas power plants. 

However, the economic benefits and on-demand generation of natural gas power still make it a pragmatic energy source. In January 2023, New York City’s natural gas power cost $28.13/MWh. “It’s very hard to beat the natural gas power plant. It’s hard [to generate electricity], and for the price per kilo, it has been perfected,” Divol said.  

We will switch to 100 percent renewable energy only when it is the most economical solution. In the meantime, the near term green energy option is a diverse board of sources that pollute less, instead of not at all. We don’t currently have the technology to eliminate pollution while economically providing reliable power to the state.  

Zahner is hopeful about Fusion but stresses the importance of realistic solutions. “It’s very possible that fusion could become the predominant source of power, and it will [take] a very long time to get there,” he said. 

Both Zahner and Divols estimate at least another 50 years before fusion is the predominant energy source. “Between now and then, we’ll continue to burn fossil fuels, and we’ll build a lot of solar projects,” said Zahner. “Fusion is great, we should continue working on it. It’s been the future for the last 70 years. And it might be the future for another 70 years. But in the meantime, we need to supply power to the economy.”

With California’s 2045 goal of providing 100 percent green energy to retail consumers and state agencies, we need to invest in a diverse range of green energy technologies now