California’s Steep Path to a High Renewable Energy Goal

Mountain climbingEmily Connor

California residents could see all of their electricity generated from renewable energy sources sooner than they might expect. A bill requiring the state to receive 100 percent of “all electricity sold at retail to come from zero-carbon resources by December 31, 2045” passed the state Senate in May and now awaits review in the Assembly.

State Bill (SB) 100, proposed by Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles), would also accelerate the timeline in which California would need to meet several interim goals. One of these would be a target of procuring at least 50 percent of total retail sales of electricity from renewable energy by December 2026 and 60 percent by 2030.

California’s ability to drive advancement in energy technology is a major opportunity that may expand due to this legislation.

How Is California Responding to Federal Decisions?

California’s push to enact more aggressive renewable energy targets comes amid President Trump’s decision to begin the nation’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and his pledges to expand coal production in the United States.

This has brought California to the fore, said Diane Moss, founding director of the Renewables 100 Policy Institute. “I think it’s only precipitating California to act more quickly and to fill the vacuum of leadership.”

Governor Jerry Brown recently visited China to discuss joint efforts to combat climate change. Observing his decision, Moss said federal behavior “is only increasing the sense of urgency to fill the gap in global leadership.”

Moss said California also has domestic reasons for pushing forward renewable energy deployment to comply with previously enacted legislation. “Because the state also has as a law an 80-percent reduction of greenhouse gases below 1990 levels... there is a probability that can’t actually be reached without going 100 percent, at least in the electricity sector.”

Pushing for aggressive targets has other benefits as well, Moss said. “Actually calling out 100-percent goals can help avoid piecemeal planning and help [California] think more comprehensively about the big picture of where we have to go.”

Meanwhile, E&E News and many other publications have reported a current controversy surrounds setting national targets of 100 percent renewable energy. However, the situation in California is quite different from the national market.

What Does 100-Percent Renewable Energy Look Like?

As the legislation is still pending, there is some ambiguity over what exactly will qualify as a renewable resource, said Andrew Campbell, executive director of the Energy Institute at Haas at the University of California, Berkeley.

“California’s renewable requirements have included wind, solar and geothermal, but don’t include rooftop solar necessarily... and larger hydroelectric is not included,” Campbell said.

While some states include nuclear as part of their renewable portfolios, Campbell said this would not be a concern in California. There is only one nuclear plant in the state. According to the LA Times, decision makers announced a year ago that it will be shut down.

“Pushing toward 100 percent would certainly drive a lot more investment in energy storage. Even under our existing requirements... there is a need for energy storage, so we are already seeing a growth in that area,” Campbell said. 

Can California Move Alone?

While California may be eager and willing to step into a leadership role in clean energy, federal resistance to major Obama-era energy policies could impede California’s efforts.

“The United States stepping back from the Clean Power Plan (CPP)… is going to make California-only action costlier,” Campbell said. “Under CPP, states throughout the United States and the West all moving toward cleaner grids would encourage more integration between states. That would lower the cost of developing renewable energy for everybody.”

“If we’re going into a situation now where a lot of states in the West are not moving at all toward cleaner energy while California is moving more aggressively, some of the opportunities to integrate with other states at lower costs go away,” Campbell said.

The geography of California poses both operational and economic challenges, Campbell said. The vertical orientation of the territory means that wind and solar sources come online and offline at roughly the same time. Costs drop and rise accordingly as supply peaks and then declines. 

Mountain climbing

How Is California’s Energy Landscape Changing?

There is some tension in the state over renewable energy costs and who will bear them.

One major development in the California energy scene has been the spread of community-choice aggregation (CCA), a system that allows cities and/or their residents to choose to purchase energy from locally-run power providers. It increases competition in the retail market. These local providers often derive more power from renewable sources. This is a key motivator for consumers wanting to switch to renewable energy-generation sources.

Utilities claim the current CCA system is unfair. California has thus far largely financed efforts to meet renewable energy goals by obligating utilities to meet targets by entering into long-term power-purchase agreements (PPAs) with renewable energy developers.

Campbell said this creates a system where if San Francisco enters into a CCA, for instance, it is not bearing the costs of the 10 and 20 year PPAs the utility signed in the mid-2000s when renewable energy prices were still quite high.

Customers whose communities opt into the CCA may see cost-savings on their bills, but that means customers who don’t belong to it bear a disproportionate amount of the cost.

Many CCAs have developed their own small-scale clean energy projects to increase power generated from renewable sources.

“One outcome [of the passage of SB 100] could come at the expense of the CCAs,” Campbell said. “If big utilities are required to do 100-percent-renewable energy, the CCAs can’t really differentiate themselves anymore by saying they are more renewable [than them].”

What Is the Future of SB 100?

Currently, the bill is under review before California’s State Assembly. According to Utility Dive, some utilities have voiced criticism of the 100-percent goal, saying more needs to be done to better define language around “zero carbon.” They also said legislators should include the 2045 goal in a different bill, separate from the language on accelerating existing targets.

This may have a ripple effect throughout the nation. Moss said subnational groups have been some of the most effective in pushing the envelope on climate and energy policies. Cities, regions and states have more agility and direct communication with constituents than the federal government does.

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