California Governor Signals New Commitment to Renewable Energy: 50% Renewables by 2030

, Senior energy analyst | January 6, 2015, 10:36 am EDT
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Yesterday Jerry Brown accepted the job of governor of California for a fourth term and made some exciting remarks about the state’s clean energy future. In his inaugural address, he praised the state for confronting climate change and emphasized the need to take additional actions to lower carbon pollution “if we are to have any chance of stopping potentially catastrophic changes to our climate system.” To that end, he proposed that by 2030, California should increase the share of electricity sourced from renewables to 50 percent; reduce the petroleum used by cars and trucks by as much as half; and reduce the electricity used in existing buildings by half and make heating fuels cleaner.

Powering half of California’s electricity needs with renewables is possible.

Supplying half the state’s electricity needs by 2030 may seem ambitious, but several indicators show that California is already headed in that direction and that 50 percent renewables is ambitious, but possible.

California’s current Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) requires all retail electricity providers to reach 33 percent renewables by 2020, and the latest status report from the California Public Utilities Commission shows that we are on track to surpass that goal.

A report from Energy + Environmental Economics (E3) released last January examined the feasibility of a 50 percent RPS and found that there were no technical barriers to reaching that goal. And the state is working with federal agencies to finalize a plan that will guide the development of up to 20,000 megawatts (MW) of additional renewable energy development in California’s desert, which would more than double the generation capacity of renewables currently online for California. This is all on top of the progress California has made to install renewable energy generation—mostly solar PV—on homes and businesses throughout the state.

Although California is already headed towards higher levels of renewables, a strong and clear statement from the governor at this juncture is very helpful. In the next few years, the state’s energy planning agencies and the California Legislature are likely to make decisions regarding the next decade of clean energy policies.

New policies should build upon what already works and make adjustments to address future needs.

Governor Brown’s message on renewables is an important first step, but concrete policies must follow his words. California’s reputation as a clean energy leader comes from years—decades even—of designing and implementing programs to drive clean energy investments. And in the future, care should be taken to only reinvent the parts of the wheel that are not working properly. When designing California’s next generation of clean energy policies, decision-makers should ensure the new policy or policies accomplish the following:

  • Clear and stable policy targets: California’s future clean energy policies should create long-term signals to drive new investments that may need years to come to fruition (like financing large-scale generation and building new transmission). In addition, policies should establish benchmarks between 2020 and 2030 to ensure we make steady progress on transitioning away from fossil fuels throughout the decade.
  • Program efficiency and clarity: Policies should be simple to understand and easy to implement. This will help build public support and understanding for the state’s clean energy programs and minimize transaction costs associated with implementation. California already has a successful history with the RPS program and market participants know the rules. California’s future renewable energy policies should build upon this successful legacy.
  • Technology driving: New clean energy programs should support investments in emerging clean energy technologies that will help us maker greater reductions in carbon pollution and lower the cost of a carbon-free electricity grid in the future.
  • Encourage regional coordination: New policies should strengthen ways for the five electricity grid operators in California and those in neighboring states to capture efficiencies by sharing generation and reliability resources instead of building and paying for their own individual resources that they may not need all of the time.
  • Avoid over-investment in natural gas: California’s future clean energy policies should leverage the capability of clean energy products (like renewables, storage devices, and flexible demand-side management) to provide energy and grid reliability services in order to avoid investments in more natural gas generation. We know that California and the nation cannot meet our long-term goals to reduce carbon emissions if we become over-reliant on natural gas.
  • Empower customers: California’s policies should enable customers to directly participate in the clean energy transition while making sure populations that cannot change behavior are not disadvantaged.
  • Create equity: New clean energy programs should provide equitable opportunities across the state for Californians to benefit from its clean energy transition.
  • Protect sensitive land: New programs should strike a careful balance between developing the best sites for energy generation and providing adequate protection for sensitive land and species.

Many of these principles are already being addressed through new developments in the state’s energy markets, agency planning efforts, and proposed legislation. But until now, we have worked on these issues within the context of achieving policy goals that extend only through 2020. The bold yet achievable clean energy vision outlined by the governor provides us with an important road map for a longer-term vision that will drive the development of California’s low-carbon economy at a time when countries all over the world are developing plans to reduce carbon.

Governor Brown’s speech gives me hope for the new year. He reminds us all that “California, since the beginning, has undertaken big tasks and entertained big ideas. Befitting a state of dreamers, builders and immigrants, we have not hesitated to attempt what our detractors have called impossible or foolish.” And the goals he proposes remind us to keep moving forward: “California feeds on change and great undertakings, but the path of wisdom counsels us to ground ourselves and nurture carefully all that we have started… the challenge is to build for the future, not steal from it.”

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  • Richard Solomon

    It is reassuring to read that the Governor’s plans are ‘ambitious but still realistic.’ While he might be able to accomplish a lot in getting the State moving towards this goal, it will take ongoing followup and implementation by future governors and legislators to ensure that this happens.

    I have two questions not addressed by this post. First, how does high speed rail fit into this picture? The Governor has been actively pushing this idea. The first piece of it is supposed to start getting built. But I wonder/worry about the extent to which cost overruns will affect its overall viability. And whether Californians will use high speed rail in sufficient numbers to make it worthwhile. Our ‘car culture’ will be a very difficult obstacle to overcome.

    Second, how can/should the State ’empower customers to directly participate in the clean energy transition?’ Would this mean things like tax breaks for people who install solar energy in their homes? What would be done to motivate people to purchase electric or fuel cell vehicles? what other ways could the State encourage people to engage in more energy efficiency related lifestyle changes?

    • Laura Wisland

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks for reading the blog. I am not working on high speed rail issues but suspect that getting Californians to use high speed rail instead of driving cars is an important piece of how we cut our petroleum use by 50%. If you have not checked out the High Speed Rail Business Plan website, you might take a look. There is information in here about projected costs and ridership.

      Your second question is great- thanks for giving me the opportunity to elaborate. I think the first step is making sure your electric utility has all the tools they need to get you excited about clean energy investments. Motivated customers will do the research themselves, but more passive customers need someone to come to their home and make the case that clean energy investments make sense. The utilities all have energy efficiency outreach programs, but I think they can be improved. This is especially important for rental properties where the person making the investment is probably not paying the electricity bill. On a related note, we need to make sure the information about the investment is simple and straightforward so that potential customers can easily understand how they benefit. Clear information about what it means for your electricity bill if you purchase an electric vehicle or install rooftop solar. This might sound obvious, but EV dealerships don’t always know how to answer questions about electricity costs versus fuel savings, and trying to understand your utility’s electricity rate structures can be very confusing. In addition, we need to make sure that we are valuing the contribution of these clean energy investments at a level that captures the benefits they provide to the environment and creates incentives for additional customers. This is coming up right now in California as we decide how much customers will receive for the excess electricity generated by PV that is sold back to the grid. Check in with Vote Solar for more details on the progress of this effort:

      These are just a few ideas, but feel free to contact me directly if you want to discuss this matter further. Thanks!

      • Richard Solomon

        Thanks for taking the time to reply…and so promptly, too!

        I will check out the websites you suggested but I have two observations.

        Re high speed rail: even if consumers can be convinced to seriously consider/use it in lieu of driving themselves they still face the challenge of getting themselves around the communities they are going to. Eg, LA has very limited public transportation to take one from its central rail station to other parts of the community. SF/the Bay Area’s system is somewhat better but still nowhere near as comprehensive or convenient as one can find in Europe’s major cities or Tokyo. So, will someone taking a high speed train end up needing to rent a car at his/her destination in order to be able to comfortably do business or visit other people?

        Re EV or PV use: I agree that neither car dealerships nor utility companies do an adequate job of explaining some of the ‘costs’ of using fossil fuels. Eg, respiratory problems for people because of the pollution caused by fossil fuels. We consumers pay for these costs via higher healthcare bills, etc.

      • BK

        This may not answer questions about the prospects for success of California’s new HS rail. But it will bring you up to date on other details. The formal groundbreaking was Tuesday.

      • Richard Solomon

        Thanks. I saw reports on the TV news and in newspapers in the Bay Area where I live about it.