PG&E should make shift from nuclear power to solar

July 28, 2013 

PG&E’s campaign to re-license Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is powering up. Thanks to The Tribune for putting PG&E’s wine-and-dine with local business and political leaders on the front page, so we uninvited can know who’s rubbing elbows.

PG&E delivered its carrot-and-stick message to a comfortable audience: DCPP pours hundreds of millions of dollars into the county, both directly in taxes and in the cushy $136,000 average annual salaries paid to its employees. Without Diablo Canyon, San Luis Obispo County faces economic doom.

That’s the story they’re telling. Shifting perspective away from nuclear power and Diablo Canyon Power Plant, far from being economic doom, could be the best thing that happens to San Luis Obispo County.

PG&E has various economic analyses citing the number of jobs and the flow of money coming from Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Very smart people have concluded that dollars from Diablo Canyon make San Luis Obispo County prosperous.

What if that money were spent, as former Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, now teaching physics and molecular and cellular physiology at Stanford University, recommends, on installing solar panels and batteries on homes and businesses? San Luis Obispo could become the showplace for a business model that serves the public better at lower cost.

Diablo Canyon’s product is electrical power. We’re smart enough to have better ways to get that. If PG&E were to invest in solar energy rather than nuclear, the economic benefit would be as great or even better.

Look at some sample figures, provided by Kristian Emrich, vice president of Solarponics Inc.: $64 million would buy solar panels, installed and working, for 3,200 homes, producing 24,762,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year. PG&E would save $743,000 per year on wholesale energy costs at $0.04 per kilowatt wholesale price.

PG&E could either own the solar panels outright or lease them to customers. Leasing them at $0.15 per kilowatt, a nickel per kilowatt less than a standard lease, PG&E could create an income of $3.7 million per year. That would give the company a return on investment near 6 percent. Added to that, $750,000 savings, it’s close to 7 percent.

Installing solar on local businesses would save PG&E even more: about $1,320,000 per year on wholesale energy costs at $0.04 per kilowatt wholesale price. With a leasing program at $0.12 per kilowatt, 3 cents per kilowatt less than a standard commercial lease, PG&E would get $4 million a year. That’s a return on investment of more than 6 percent. The cost savings on energy purchased brings the return on investment up to 7.5 percent.

PG&E gets to provide clean energy without those pesky problems of earthquake faults and spent nuclear fuel.

Diablo Canyon Power Plant is a major economic backbone of SLO County, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. Spending even this preliminary $64 million on solar energy would create 100 full-time local jobs for a year. Such an infusion of money into solar installations could spark interest and inspire more individuals and businesses to go solar.

“PG&E could sub out the installations to local installers, which would create even more jobs,” Emrich said. “That would increase awareness and competition, driving increased growth in renewable energy sales.”

Cal Poly could focus its attention on solar, as Texas A&M has with its proposed Center for Solar Energy. Its solar test farm will be the world’s largest — hey, it’s in Texas — and make the school the first all-solar university, as well as providing electricity to 20,000 homes and the Fort Hood military installation. Cal Poly could be next.

Homeowners who don’t have electric bills to pay can use that money on other things, from paying the mortgage to putting food on the table. Maybe they’ll go to a movie or eat out at a restaurant. That means about $500,000 in local spending that now goes to PG&E, in the first year alone. It gets better, increasing by about 6 percent a year.

Local solar installers are ready to go to work.

Christine Heinrichs is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, Northern California Science Writers Association and Ten Spurs, the honorary society of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference. She has written two books about heritage breed poultry and lives in Cambria.

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