The path to a greener future in California might not be all fair winds and sunshine through Sacramento.
A state senate proposal, SB100, doubles down on existing goals and would make California the second state, after Hawaii, to commit to 100 percent renewable energy and zero-carbon sources for electricity. Renewable energy companies – especially solar and energy tech firms in the Bay Area – are all in. But the bill has received a tepid response from environmentalists and opposition from utilities, oil and gas companies.
“It’s the most ambitious target in the world, especially for an economy that dwarfs all but a handful of nations,” said Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León, the author of the bill.
“This is about jobs,” he said. “Real jobs.”
More than a half-million Californians are employed by the clean energy industry, about ten times more than work in the U.S. coal mining industry. But the push for a greater reliance on renewable power would require increased energy storage, greater regional cooperation and more power sources. And it could drive up electricity bills.
State lawmakers set an aggressive goal two years ago of getting half of California’s electricity needs from clean sources by 2030. The state is on pace to reach that target, now getting about 27 percent of its electricity from clean sources, according to recent estimates by the Energy Commission.
The new bill sets a 100 percent target by 2045, and requires the Air Resources Board, Energy Commission and Public Utilities Commission to use the target for long-term planning and decision-making. It would speed up the state’s transition to renewable sources – solar, wind, biomass, renewable gas and some hydroelectricity – over the next three decades.
It also bumps the mandatory renewable rate from 50 to 60 percent by 2030.
The proposal, which is being considered in committee, could also encourage building new pipelines and other infrastructure to support increased use of bio-methane gas. It would push gas companies to replace diesel-fueled trucks with low or zero emission vehicles.
The path to an all-renewable electrical grid would mean major technological advances and upgrades, experts say. Arne Olson, partner at the international energy consulting firm E3, said the state would have to diversify its renewable portfolio. Building solar farms can be expensive and take up lots of land, and federal restrictions have banned wind farms from prime desert sites.
Olson said the state would need to allow more out-of-state wind, hydro-power and solar into the California grid. Olson said market solutions and demand charges – such as lower prices during the day, when solar is plentiful, and higher prices at night – are important.
The industry would have to continue to develop more efficient ways to generate and use power. Expanding energy storage capacity would be expensive, but also necessary.
“Certainly, it’s feasible,” said Olson, who has consulted for state agencies. “The real worry I would have is meeting peak demands.”
Hawaii, for example, can’t depend on sunshine 24 hours a day, and uses biofuels like diesel to meet high demand. California power providers currently meet peak energy demand mostly with natural gas.
Executives for clean energy companies and industry lobbyists say the challenges can be overcome by innovation and falling prices for renewable technology as it becomes more widespread.
SunPower CEO Tom Werner said the bill would spur growth throughout the industry, encouraging a robust grid with more storage capacity, new technology and markets.
“It triggers a wave of innovation,” he said.
But the Sierra Club of California and the Natural Resources Defense Council have not taken public positions on the bill. Environmentalists praise the goal, but are concerned about other parts of the bill that may open the door for more natural gas use in the state.
Still, both groups embrace a 100 percent renewables goal.
“We know it can be done,” Sierra Club of California state director Kathryn Phillips said.
The bill is opposed by gas and oil companies and two of the state’s three investor-owned utilities.
PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said the company was concerned about rising costs for customers with possible expansions and upgrades to transmission and grid infrastructure. The utility wants lawmakers to considering reducing greenhouse gas emissions throughout the economy, including transportation and other services.
She added that the utility was willing to work with lawmakers to those address issues.
Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, said natural gas has been the bridge fuel providing the state with energy that is cleaner and often cheaper than other fossil fuel alternatives. Even in California, the sun does not always shine, he noted.
“The only viable back-up solution to renewables is power generated by clean burning natural gas,” Zierman said in a statement.
Supporters say lawmakers should trust that innovation can drive the energy markets to clean, affordable energy.
“There’s huge impacts that really go beyond California,” said Gregory Wetstone, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy. “It’s also significant as a signal of what we can do.”
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