Investment in RD&D: Move It or Lose It California!

December 6, 2011 | 10:33 am
Laura Wisland
Former Contributor

In an earlier post, I wrote about the California Legislature’s failure this fall to reauthorize funding for the state’s clean energy research, development, and deployment (RD&D) program. On an encouraging note, the California Public Utilities Commission recently issued a proposed decision to approve a year’s worth of bridge funding to continue the program, allowing the Legislature to take another crack at the issue in 2012. 

Innovation will be key to California's future. Image courtesy of The Financial Times

The importance of investing in RD&D is reaffirmed in a recent research paper published in Science. The article identifies the infrastructure and technology transformations required to meet California’s 2050 emission reduction goals. The message is clear: it IS possible for California to make the deep emission cuts necessary for a cleaner, safer, and healthier environment and economy, but ONLY if we get serious about investing in the RD&D that will make those emission reduction technologies cost-effective and deployable on a large scale.

Dramatic Emission Reductions Are Possible

If you don’t have a subscription to Science, the Contra Costa Times provides a nice summary:
“The new study found that meeting the long-term [emission reduction] goal is possible and does not require major technological or behavioral breakthroughs such as the development of nuclear fusion or a mass conversion to vegetarianism and bicycle commuting. However, it will require a lot of innovation and investment, preferably starting now, [Margaret S.] Torn [co-author of paper] said. ‘We don’t have to assume a miracle,’ she said.” (emphasis added)

The Science paper concludes that three major things must happen for California to make deep enough cuts in greenhouse gas emissions: (1) aggressive levels of energy efficiency equivalent to the levels achieved during the 2000-2001 California “electricity crisis”; (2) a virtual decarbonization of the electricity grid using a combination of renewables, nuclear, and natural gas with carbon capture and storage, and; (3) the electrification of nearly all end-use fossil fuel consumption (yes, that means everyone’s cars and trucks).

Snuller Price, another co-author of the Science paper, was interviewed online and asked what the state should focus on during the next decade. This is how he responded:
“If you think about the scale of the amount of new electric generation we need, it’s truly massive. And this is the decade to really improve the technology and get the costs down to a level where we can really keep it on a sustainable, long-term path, so getting the costs down of renewable energy, figuring out how we can do energy efficiency and retrofits more cost effectively. Basically, we have to get the learning done so that the prices are reasonable, before we have to buy in bulk.”

We could argue for days about the assumptions in the model or whether the entire vehicle fleet will be truly electrified by 2050, but for me, the exciting thing is that none of these solutions are beyond the realm of possibility today. California has taken aggressive strides on investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and has a plan in place to transition to electric vehicles, but can be doing a lot more. Reauthorizing the Public Goods Charge, the state’s funding stream for RD&D, is an important first step in this process that should be a no-brainer.