The energy landscape of Southern California will look vastly different without San Onofre, officials said in a state Senate committee hearing Wednesday, the first in a series of public discussions on life without the nuclear plant.
The 2,200-megawatt behemoth in northern San Diego County brought a steady supply of power to about 1.4 million homes until equipment problems forced it to close in early 2012.
But the plant's owner, Southern California Edison, announced last month that it would be permanently retired.
The plant's closure came as the state was dealing with new regulations on the use of ocean water for cooling that will force many coastal plants to shut down or perform extensive upgrades, and a mandate for the state to get 33% of its power from renewable resources by 2020.
In the short term, officials said California should get by this summer without San Onofre, although energy supplies will be tight in San Diego County and southern Orange County if there is an extreme heat wave or fires that take out transmission lines.
Three new gas-fired plants in Southern California — El Segundo, Walnut Creek and Sentinel — will "only help marginally" in the San Diego and Orange County region that depended most on San Onofre, said Steve Berberich, chief executive of the California Independent System Operator, which oversees much of the state's grid.
A more helpful development was the conversion of two retired gas-fired units in Huntington Beach into "synchronous condensers," pieces of equipment that help move energy through the grid so that more power can be imported from outside the region.
The long-term plan for replacing San Onofre is still far from complete. What is clear is that the future grid will need to be more decentralized and flexible, officials said.
“Essentially, it takes a portfolio of all different kinds of resources to meet the needs that we have,” California Public Utilities Commission member Mike Florio said. "Each type of resource has its strengths and weaknesses. We can’t rely on one source. We have to have a mix.”
Some voiced concerns that the loss of San Onofre will lead to an increase in reliance on fossil fuels, at least in the short term.
“One of the challenges we have with the closure of San Onfore is that nuclear helps us with our greenhouse gas emissions," said state Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills).
Increasing the use of renewables does not entirely solve that problem, officials said, because until better technology is developed for energy storage, the energy they produce is not available at all times.
“You have to fill that in when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, and right now the technology available to do that is the gas plants," Berberich said.
A task force of various state energy and environmental agencies is working together to come up with a long-term plan for replacing San Onofre, and is expected to come back with recommendations by mid-September.
State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) said he was encouraged to see the various state energy agencies working together. But he also pointed out that officials would not be scrambling now if they had planned before the plant went down for the possibility of San Onofre going offline.
"The public deserves to know whether or not the regulators in California and the legislators in California are on top of the challenge of keeping the lights on," he said.