Over the Hill

It will take more than solar to replace Diablo Canyon’s energy

Workers install rotator hinges at First Solar’s energy plant near Cholame on Aug. 18.
Workers install rotator hinges at First Solar’s energy plant near Cholame on Aug. 18. The New York Times

I didn’t know the average pay of workers at the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant was $157,000 per year. I only learned that recently from reading news stories about PG&E’s plans to shut down the plant in nine years.

I never earned that much, but I did retire in 1993. Money was worth more then.

About 1,500 Diablo Canyon workers will be looking for work by 2025. There’s going to be some pain. It’s easier for me to understand human stuff like that than the big, important business implications.

So I worry whether PG&E will be able to make enough electricity for customers like me after Diablo Canyon closes. That plant now generates about 9 percent of California’s electricity, and the need for electricity continues to increase. California’s population was about 38 million in 2015 and is predicted to reach between 44 million and 48 million by 2025. Those millions are going to need electricity.

Solar energy has been suggested as a growing source for the needed electricity. And I do see solar panels on more and more Paso Robles roofs these days. The panels do generate some of the electricity used in those houses, and they probably work very well here in Paso Robles. We have a big surplus of sunshine and very few clouds, especially rain clouds.

I read in last Saturday’s Tribune that a company is installing a solar farm near Cholame. It’s on 2,900 acres of the old Jack Ranch. Its solar panels can generate 130 megawatts of electricity — or 130 million watts. That sounds like a lot, but it’s not. The Diablo Canyon plant can generate about 2,240 megawatts.

And two other solar farms have been built out on the Carrizo Plain. They’re already busily harvesting the sun’s rays. One of them can generate 250 megawatts, and the other one can generate 550. But we’ll need a lot more to take the place of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant and its energy. We’ve become addicted to it.

There also are other bigger solar-generating plants in the desert. But I think they’re already counted in the 91 percent of California electricity not supplied by Diablo Canyon.

And anyway, what happens at night when there’s no sunshine to generate solar-powered electricity? No doubt PG&E has hydroelectric power plants. But they require water, of which we’ve had unreliable supplies lately because of our drought and climate change. Can we build enough wind-powered generators to fill the shortage?

PG&E will assure us that everything will be all right and to just trust them to do the right thing. I, for one, won’t be surprised if they eventually tell us they have to resort “temporarily” to steam-generating plants that burn various fuels.

And when they say, “Trust us,” I’ll remember the 2010 PG&E gas pipeline explosion in San Bruno that killed eight people and leveled 35 homes. And I won’t forget PG&E’s unseemly, cozy relationship with the California Public Utilities Commission.

Note: An earlier version of this column stated an incorrect power generation capacity for Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.