California’s Zero-Carbon Bill Aims To Set Climate Example

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

By Bobby Magill

California lawmakers want to prove that one of the world’s largest economies can wean its electric power sector off of fossil fuels, using a bill expected to receive a final vote before the end of August.

If enacted, Senate Bill 100 would make California the second state to adopt a 100 percent renewables mandate. Hawaii became the first state to set that target, in 2015.

The bill is vigorously opposed by the state’s electric utilities, who predict cost increases.

The measure would strengthen the state’s renewable energy target from 50 to 60 percent by 2030 and require California to obtain all of its electricity from zero-carbon energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydro by the end of 2045.

“As goes California, so goes the rest of the nation,” California Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego), a co-author of the bill, told Bloomberg Environment. “If we can prove this to work here, the potential for taking a massive amount of fossil fuel out of the economy is possible in so many places around the world. It’s undeniable that things that are pioneered here are replicated elsewhere.”

Environmentalists say that the bill’s chances of passage are good.

“There’s a broad coalition in support of the bill,” Peter Miller, western energy project director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate and Energy Program, told Bloomberg Environment.

Climate Bragging Rights

The bill, if signed into law, is expected to give California bragging rights as Gov. Jerry Brown (D) hosts the Global Climate Action Summit in September in San Francisco. There, local governments, corporations, and other organizations from around the U.S. and the world plan to promote ways for sub-national groups to push countries on making ambitious climate pollution cuts.

California emits a small fraction of the global greenhouse gases driving climate change, so the bill only makes sense if it can influence the rest of the country, Catherine Wolfram, research director of the Energy for Economic Growth Program at Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley, told Bloomberg Environment.

“That’s what any reasonable policy maker in California should be thinking about: How this should impact not just other states, but the rest of the world, if we’re able to set an example for them,” Wolfram said.

The bill also will show other states looking to boost their renewables goals how to take steps toward committing to 100 percent clean energy, according to Dian Grueneich, a former California public utilities commissioner and a senior research scholar in the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.

“It shows that this is not pie-in-the-sky but a state with the world’s fifth largest economy has full confidence in renewable energy,” Grueneich said.

Two Goals

The bill mainly proposes to strengthen California’s existing renewable portfolio standard but use a slightly different standard for the 2045 goal.

California today requires the state to obtain 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020, increasing to 50 percent by 2030.

The state is already on track to meet those goals, so the bill proposes to increase the target to 60 percent by 2030. Large hydropower dams, which are the source of 21 percent of the state’s electricity, are not considered renewable energy resources in California.

The bill would increase the renewables target to 100 percent by 2045, but also allow for other “zero carbon” energy sources to be used.

Large hydropower dams would help meet the 100 percent goal in part because they can count as energy storage, allowing utilities to generate electricity from water in reservoirs when the power is needed, Wolfram said.

Opposition from Utilities

California’s electric utilities and its power grid operator said those goals pose problems for integrating renewables onto the grid and would increase consumers’ costs.

Decarbonizing California’s economy to address climate change should involve emissions cuts from all sectors of the economy, Darren Bouton, director of state public affairs for Southern California Edison Corp., Southern California’s largest electric utility, wrote in an Aug. 6 letter to the state Assembly.

“Utility customers should not have to shoulder the costs of expensive [greenhouse gas] reductions if there are more affordable options in other sectors,” he said.

The company said the bill doesn’t account for the uncertainty electric utilities face because of climate change and changing regulations.

The state hasn’t sufficiently planned for increased use of rooftop solar, which would reduce homeowners’ demand for electric power from the grid, nor has it accounted for the rising costs of damage to power lines because of wildfires, the letter said.

‘Already Presenting Challenges’

Southern California Edison declined to comment further. California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The state’s grid operator, California ISO, should be allowed to fully study how the proposed renewables goals will affect grid reliability and costs before the measure is approved, the Southern California Edison letter said.

“The dramatic upward trend of added renewables, especially solar, is already presenting challenges,” Anne Gonzales, California ISO spokeswoman, told Bloomberg Environment.

There is too much solar power on the power grid when it isn’t needed, and “flexible and diverse” power resources need to be developed, she said.

A Boon for Storage

Electricity storage is one of the resources California ISO says is needed to integrate more renewables onto the grid.

The bill, if passed, is expected to energize the electricity storage industry, either in the form of large batteries or solar-thermal power plants that store solar energy as part of their design.

Energy storage allows renewable power to be produced when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing but used when it is needed the most. Otherwise, solar and wind energy is wasted if it can’t be used the moment it is produced.

“We already have so much solar that in the middle of some spring days, there are negative prices,” Wolfram said. “We’re paying people to consume electricity.”

The Senate bill would accelerate the development of energy storage technology and its integration with the power grid, Kelly Speakes-Backman, CEO of the Energy Storage Association, told Bloomberg Environment.

Try Environment & Energy Report