Will California Continue its Progress on Clean Electricity?

August 21, 2018 | 9:33 am
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Laura Wisland
Former contributor

With two weeks left in the California legislative session, the fate of several proposals that would make big changes to California electricity policy are still up in the air.

There’s Senate Bill 100 (De León) which would raise the Renewables Portfolio Standard to 60% by 2030 and create a longer-term goal to reach 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045.  Assembly Bill 813 (Holden) would lay the groundwork for the California Independent System Operator (the grid manager for most of the state) to transition to a regional electricity market. Senate Bill 64 (Wieckowski) would improve energy agencies and air regulators’ understanding of how natural gas power plant operations are changing over time and how those changes may impact air quality.

Swirling around all these issues is whether and how the Legislature is going to weigh in this year on utility wildfire liability.

No matter what happens in Sacramento this August, it seems clear to me that California will need to make some big decisions in the coming years. Will we continue our clean energy progress? Will we seek more ambitious solutions as climate change impacts worsen?

Creating a robust, resilient, and low-cost supply of carbon-free electricity is critical to reducing the global warming and air pollution that results from consuming fossil-based sources of energy across many sectors of our economy. Here are 7 issues (in no order of importance) at the top of my mind that I think need to be addressed in the near future:

  1. Set a long-term clean electricity goal, but don’t take our eyes off 2030: it takes time to make the necessary investments in carbon-free generation and other supporting infrastructure like transmission lines and the distribution grid. We’ll need long-term signals—like SB 100—to help guide the research and investment that will be needed to make this transition a reality. At the same time, we need to make sure our nearer-term (2020 and 2030) clean energy goals are met in ways that allow Californians to experience the environmental and economic benefits of these early actions.
  2. Plan to transition away from natural gas: coal is used less and less in California and by 2020 all direct imports of coal power will be phased out. But we still depend on natural gas generation to meet about a third of our electricity needs and that number will not decline enough without a concerted effort. If Californians truly want to take the carbon out of our electricity sector, we need a plan for how to wean ourselves off this fossil fuel. UCS just released an analysis that we hope begins a longer conversation about how to transition away from gas and how to make sure we go about reducing natural gas generation in the most cost-effective and socially equitable way possible.
  3. Make the grid more flexible with clean technology: wind and solar generation vary with weather patterns, which means the clean grid of the future must be flexible enough to adapt to greater variability in electricity supplies. This flexibility needs to come from clean technologies like energy storage, that can control their power output. We also need more strategies, like time varying electricity rates, to shift our electricity use towards times of the day when renewables are most abundant. The debate over AB 813 may be fierce, but regardless of this year’s choice to launch a Western regional grid or not, grid operators in the future need to be able to share resources and access renewables throughout a wider geographic footprint. It’s just more efficient and the grid will be more flexible and able to accommodate more carbon-free electricity if California can sell its excess solar power to other states during the day, and buy excess wind power from its neighbors at night.
  4. Unlock the value of distributed energy resources: there are unique and valuable localized benefits to clean energy investments like rooftop solar and small-scale storage that, when installed in the right locations, save us money by postponing or avoiding upgrades to the distribution system. Smaller, more local clean energy resources can make the grid more resilient when a big power plant or transmission line goes down because of extreme weather or some other type of grid emergency. We need a better way to quantify the value of these resources to make paths to market clearer for technology innovators.
  5. Do more to reduce carbon in the building sector: heating water and space in California’s homes and buildings with natural gas emits as much global warming pollution as all in-state power plants. And, this doesn’t count methane that leaks from gas pipelines. California’s policies and programs to reduce natural gas usage in buildings lag behind other clean energy efforts. In the next few years, decision makers need to identify ways to lower the cost of technology that can reduce energy use in buildings, and transition away from fossil fuels for the energy we need.
  6. Use renewables to charge electric cars: millions of electric vehicles on the road are a key part of the state’s vision for clean energy in the next decade. We need to make sure we charge all these electric cars when renewables are most abundant. This means building new charging infrastructure and creating consumer habits that will maximize daytime charging and staggering when cars draw power from the grid to minimize surges in electricity demand.
  7. Make the clean energy transition equitable: Talented and skilled workers will be needed to create California’s clean energy future – in infrastructure, manufacturing, software, construction, maintenance, and more. The public, private, and non-profit sectors, including educational institutions, should collaborate to train and develop the workforce needed to fuel this growth. As new business models for the clean energy grid are developed and tested, workers should benefit from the industry’s growth and be paid fairly.

Advancing all this good stuff will require robust and cross-sectoral communication, information sharing, investment planning, and risk-management processes that engage all stakeholders. This is especially important as California’s electricity and transportation sectors have grown and become more diverse, and as California strives to make deeper cuts to global warming emissions throughout all sectors of its economy, including the goods and services we use.

Legislators and advocates are busy working on the future laws and regulations that will make a clean energy future a reality. But all of us have a part to play in this transition if we want California to be a global leader. All eyes are on California to show the world how to wean millions of people and an enormous economy off fossil fuels. It’s imperative we get this right.