How Newsom’s bill to keep Diablo Canyon nuclear plant open was nearly derailed by one phrase


Gavin Newsom’s push to extend the life of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant has raged for weeks. But on Tuesday, conflicting interpretations of a single phrase led to a whirlwind of political wrangling.

The flurry of environmentalist outrage and backstage compromise — playing out as the legislative session nears adjournment Wednesday night — illustrated a process that leaves some of the state’s most critical policy decisions to eleventh-hour changes and feverish rebuttal.

“This is a classic example of why the three-day cooling off period is important,” said Bernadette Del Chiaro, Executive Director of the California Solar and Storage Association, referring to the short, critical time required for legislation to print before it can be put to a vote.

“When people are having to scramble in three days for a big policy like this, it at least gives us a chance.”

Before smoothing over disagreements Tuesday afternoon, clean energy organizations were outraged over the words “gross consumption.”

The bill says Pacific Gas & Electric can pay for the plant’s operating costs by taxing “each customer’s gross consumption of electricity regardless of a customer’s net metering status.”

Advocates feared that highly technical phrase would allow the utility to tax all energy consumed by ratepayers, including what’s generated by rooftop solar at their homes and businesses — the opposite of what they say California ought to be doing to combat climate change.

“This is the same thing as taxing people for hang drying clothes rather than running an electric dryer,” said executive director of the Solar Rights Alliance Dave Rosenfeld early Tuesday. Like several other environmental groups, it held no previous position on the bill.

Given the history of PG&E’s attempts to undercut the solar industry, the phrase triggered alarms for clean energy advocates like Rosenfeld. He pointed to widespread protests when the California Public Utilities Commission considered a similar tax in both January and June; his post Tuesday about the “sneaky solar tax” got so much web traffic it overwhelmed the website.

The Environmental Working Group also called it a “backdoor attack on net metering by Pacific Gas & Electric.”


After conversations with the governor’s office Tuesday, environmental organizations were promised that a letter of clarification on “gross consumption” would be attached the bill, and follow the measure into law if it passes.

The letter from the governor’s office would say explicitly that gross consumption is defined by the total amount of electricity a consumer purchases from the grid. It means the tax would exclude energy generated by homeowners or businesses with their own solar panels or batteries.

The Diablo Canyon measure, SB 846, aims to bolster California’s grid reliability during the state’s shift to clean energy by keeping its last nuclear power plant on line. It would nullify a previous agreement to shut down the plant in 2025 and loan PG&E as much as $1.4 billion to continue operating until Oct. 2030.

The bill requires a two-thirds majority for passage because it comes with an urgency provision, which means it would take effect immediately after Newsom signs it. Lawmakers are supposed to adjourn Wednesday night but can vote on this bill into Thursday because of that designation.

Newsom’s administration has pushed to keep the plant, which accounted for 8.5% of all power generated by the state last year, open out of concern that there will not be enough solar and wind to help meet consumer demand at certain times of the day.

Tuesday afternoon the measure’s author, Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said in a statement that claims the bill would lead to a solar tax were ludicrous and false. Once disagreements had been smoothed over with environmental groups, he said in another statement: “I’m glad the solar industry came to their senses and recognized what the bill is intended to do.”

The bill was co-authored by Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo.

Clean energy advocates, meanwhile, are looking ahead to September when the CPUC will consider a solar tax yet again. A spokesperson from PG&E declined to comment and referred questions to the governor’s office.

“I see this as a last ditch attempt,” said Del Chiaro, from California Solar Association. She’s grateful for the 2016 reforms passed by Prop. 54 that forced lawmakers to put bills into print three days before the legislative session’s end, for precisely that reason.

“They’re just used to getting what they want and forcing it… But people care about this.”

Read more at: