Letters to the Editor

How do we prepare for a post-Diablo economy?

The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near Avila Beach, pictured in 2001.
The Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant near Avila Beach, pictured in 2001. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

As news of the deal that will close Diablo Canyon continues to reverberate, it’s critical that we begin to plan now for our post-Diablo future. We cannot afford to be apathetic or behave like a broken-hearted lover bemoaning codependency.

This is perhaps the best test yet of our resilience. Having governed through a terrible recession and having been hands-on in economic development, I have come to believe challenges are catalyzing and empowering.

The good news is we are not starting from scratch. There are many efforts underway that have already strengthened our local economy, and we have assets that many communities lack, ranging from a terrific university to being a highly desirable place to live. Some key fundamentals are aligned in our favor, including the ongoing collaboration involving the Economic Vitality Corp., San Luis Obispo County and the cities; Cal Poly’s SLO HotHouse; and a growing critical mass of young, highly skilled professionals.

Most importantly, we have more opportunities to expand the growing sectors of our economy that have the potential to generate head-of-household jobs, including technology, specialized manufacturing and renewable energy.

The challenges to both retaining our local companies (many of which are small businesses with 50 or fewer employees) and nurturing new ones are well known. Workforce housing is desperately needed, and the obstacles are many, including resources (water, infrastructure), policies (state and local) and attitude (many residents here oppose all new growth). If we fail to address this in a more timely fashion, I guarantee we will see several of our best employers leaving at just about the same time the nuclear power plant goes offline.

While some more vocal residents (often retirees) may think sacrificing good jobs is worth it if it means we will have no further growth, what it also means is we will have vastly less revenue and recirculated incomes, which is largely how we pay for roads, parks, trails, open space, a pristine coastline and other features of our quality of life that we sometimes take for granted. We can’t “save” the place without money, and taxes alone don’t do it.

So here are some steps that I believe we must take to offset the potentially devastating loss of so many good jobs at the plant, as well as the loss of so much money that goes to the schools, the county, the cities and our local nonprofit organizations.

1. In the county, we must amend our General Plan policies to attract more renewable energy projects and to make solarization of all rooftops a reality. The two utility-scale solar farms in Carrisa Plains were a huge boost to our local trades and other workers, but they will be the only ones we see until we make our requirements more competitive, more streamlined and more predictable. The loss of Diablo’s power, especially when it comes to our local transmission-line corridor, has to be replaced by renewables. This presents us with enormous opportunities, but they won’t just come our way. We have to fight for them, and we need to be armed with the right policies and incentives. There’s no reason we can’t be a renewable-energy hub if we get this right.

2. We need to move much faster to get the right housing in the right places, and that also means we need to have the transportation infrastructure to support it. To me, the decision on Diablo only underscores the importance of having a self-help tax dedicated to such infrastructure. Opponents argue that we should stand firm and not reward Sacramento for its “bad behavior” toward local communities. Well, state policies led to Diablo not seeking relicensing, and regardless of the merits of those policies, our community didn’t exactly have a say in the matter. In fact, we had no say. So we can either pretend that doing nothing is a principled stand, or we can take care of ourselves.

3. All local governments, the county included, need to do more than pay lip service to creating a business-friendly climate. This is much more complex than it seems, and marketing is the last part of it, not the first (a common mistake). We need to take action to reform policies and processes that make the conditions for innovation and creativity impossible. Too often, we rely on “what we’ve always done.” This also requires a cultural change to some extent, as most people dislike change and fight it. Many people see changes in policies as undermining protections. It doesn’t have to be that way. In every community in this county, there are people who know exactly what it is that makes it so hard to do business here and exactly what we might do to change that, without sacrificing community values.

4. We not only need to manage our groundwater in accordance with state legislation, but we also need to see a revolution in sustainability. We need to see innovation overtake our community in every water-consumptive area — from agriculture to buildings to yards and parks — and upgrade all of our water systems for recycling and reclamation. Some of this is being done, but not at the pace needed, and if all of us are going to work together to transcend our immediate self-interests for the sake of the larger community, there has to be a greater sense of shared responsibility. We have to care not only about others now but for the future, too. And from what I’ve seen at the HotHouse and from other communities devoted to incubating companies that create emerging technologies, the way we produce and consume water will require a transition that is just as focused and policy driven as the one we are making on energy.

So the choice is before us now: We will either make our future or surrender to fate. We can take bold actions to ensure our local economy keeps thriving, or we can sit on our hands and hope that tourism and its related sectors alone will save us — but they won’t.

Adam Hill represents the 3rd District on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.