100% Clean Energy? In California, SB 100 May Make it Possible

July 7, 2017 | 9:20 am
Laura Wisland
Former Contributor

For many, summertime means getting to wear shorts, eating more ice cream than usual, and if you’re lucky, sleeping in. But for me, summertime means putting on a suit and heading to Sacramento to talk about energy policy. While the Trump Administration tries unsuccessfully to convince the country that coal is the answer, the California Legislature is moving ever forward to advance a cleaner and healthier energy future.

Right now, much attention is focused on the 100 Percent Clean Energy Act of 2017 (“SB 100” for short). SB 100 would accelerate the state’s primary renewable energy program—the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS)—which was created to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and improve air quality. The RPS currently requires every utility in the state to source 50% of its electricity sales from renewables by 2030.

The program has been a major driver of renewable energy development since its inception in 2002, and has helped us significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and criteria air pollution associated with electricity generation. In 2016, California generated approximately 25% of its electricity from RPS-eligible renewables like solar, wind, geothermal, bioenergy, and small hydropower.

California renewable energy mix in 2016. Source: California Energy Commission

SB 100 would accelerate the RPS requirement to 60% by 2030. Getting to 60% renewables by 2030 is certainly achievable. Many of the major electricity providers in the state are already on track to meet or exceed the 50% RPS; raising it to 60% by 2030 will help take advantage of the renewable energy federal tax credits that are set to expire or significantly step down between 2019 and 2022.

SB 100 would also establish a path to decarbonize the remaining electricity used in California (aka the 40% not subject to the RPS).  It does this by directing the state’s energy agencies to study and plan for an electricity grid that utilizes 100% “zero-carbon” resources by 2045.

In other words, 60% of California’s electricity would be generated by RPS-eligible renewables while the remaining 40% would be generated by additional renewables or other types of electricity generation that don’t qualify under the RPS, but also don’t require the combustion of fossil fuels. For example, California’s existing fleet of large hydropower facilities is not RPS-eligible, but would count as “zero carbon.”

Powering the most populous and prosperous state in the country on 100% zero-carbon electricity is bold and aspirational, but also achievable. Technology is already available to help the grid to run on very large quantities of renewables, and the cost of investments needed to make this happen are coming down.

One of the biggest challenges we must overcome to reach a zero-carbon electricity future is eliminating our dependence on natural gas to provide energy and grid reliability services. Natural gas-fired generation still makes up 36 percent of California’s electricity mix and emits greenhouse gases and air pollutants.

To jump-start the research effort to securely ease us off fossil fuels, our electricity providers and energy regulatory agencies need a signal from the legislature that Californians demand a carbon-free future.

We have a lot at stake. As climate change intensifies, peoples’ health and economic stability are being threatened by extreme heat, water shortages, forest fires, and sea level rise. Showing the world how to run a grid on 100% carbon-free generation  would provide a blueprint for significant cuts in global warming emissions. In addition, California continues to have the worst air quality of any state in the country; by electrifying the transportation sector with carbon-free electricity, we can cut the largest source of toxic air pollution in the state—cars and trucks.

California has firmly established itself as a clean energy leader by reaching for goals that at first seemed unattainable. At first glance, a 100% zero-carbon electricity goal may seem like a moonshot. But I say let’s do it.  We won’t know how close the stars actually are unless we reach for them.