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With San Onofre closing, sources of region's energy are uncertain

Head of the California Public Utilities Commission says questions that must be addressed include how much to pay for power and how much is needed.

June 11, 2013|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles Times
  • Southern California Edison announces plans to permanently retire the two units at its San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
Southern California Edison announces plans to permanently retire the… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

The permanent closure of the San Onofre nuclear plant leaves significant unanswered questions about the future of the energy supply in Southern California, the head of the state's Public Utilities Commission acknowledged Tuesday.

"How much we pay for power, how much we need, what kind of summers we have for the next couple of years, these are all matters of some uncertainty," commission Chairman Michael Peevey said in a meeting with The Times.

Southern California Edison, the majority owner of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, decided last week to retire the troubled plant, citing mounting costs and uncertainty about when and if federal regulators would clear the way for the plant to restart.

The facility, which hugs the coast just south of San Clemente, was initially closed after a tube in a recently installed generator began leaking radioactive steam. A subsequent inspection revealed that hundreds of tubes were wearing out at an unusually fast rate.

Peevey said the decision to close the plant for good means state energy officials now must begin making definitive plans for a power grid without San Onofre.

"The indecision this has caused has had the effect of freezing things here," he said, referring to the 16-month debate over San Onofre's future.

In the short term, Edison will have to continue buying power from elsewhere to replace the nuclear plant's 2,200-megawatt output, Peevey said. The plant had been a significant contributor to the region's energy supply, particularly in southern Orange County and San Diego.

Ted Craver, chief executive of SCE's parent company, Edison International, said last week that the company has spent more than $500 million on replacement power since the plant was shut down in January 2012.

The Public Utilities Commission will eventually have to decide whether ratepayers or shareholders will pick up the tab for the replacement power, as well as for the plant's operating costs during the outage and the $768.5-million cost of the steam generator replacement. The cost question is the subject of an ongoing investigation by the commission.

Peevey said energy officials will need to place more emphasis on efficiency. The California Independent System Operator on Wednesday will appeal to consumers to enroll in the Flex Alert program, which encourages summertime energy conservation.

Southern California will also need upgrades to its transmission system and officials will need to decide whether to build new plants or rely on existing facilities along the coast that would need expensive refurbishing to meet new regulations on the use of ocean water for cooling, he said.

While repowering coastal plants would be contingent on their owners deciding that it makes economic sense, doing so would be a much easier process than building entirely new plants, Peevey said.

"Where could you possibly build another power plant in Southern California?" he said.

abby.sewell@latimes.com

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