For the third time in as many years, California lawmakers have rejected a plan pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown that would have expanded the state power grid to as many as 14 western states.
The bill, authored by Democratic Assemblyman Chris Holden of Pasadena, was denied a vote on the Senate floor before the gavel was brought down on the legislative session for the year late Friday night.
The demise of the legislation was a rare defeat for Brown, who leaves office late this year after serving 16 years over two terms as California governor.
“Lawmakers missed an opportunity to further open the market for solar, wind and other forms of renewable power, and to accelerate our movement away from coal and other dirty fossil fuels, in a way that is affordable and reliable for consumers,” said Donald Furman, leader of a group called Fix the Grid pushing for the measure.
“Despite today’s setback, California must continue to lead on climate and clean energy policy, particularly in the face of a hostile federal administration.”
The death of the legislation signaled that legislative leadership was unwilling to cross potent political forces that opposed the bill, like organized labor and public utilities, or do bidding for a governor not long for office.
“AB 813 will not be moved to the Senate floor for a vote this year,” said Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego. “We will continue this important discussion next year.”
Among other things, Assembly Bill 813 would have eliminated much of California’s authority over the transmission network by doing away with the governor’s ability to appoint the board running the California Independent System Operator, or CAISO.
Thousands of miles of transmission poles and wires would have been managed by a panel of energy-industry insiders and regulated by the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has been accused of being more friendly to utilities than its California counterpart.
The Holden bill drew support from CAISO and some environmental groups, who said it would streamline grid operations and allow California to market its excess solar and wind power to nearby states.
Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, was a supporter of the bill.
“The Legislature just couldn’t get to ‘yes’ but the need for western grid integration grows more obvious each day,” he said. “And if California doesn’t lead the inevitable transition, others will. California’s wind and solar generation are growing faster than our inefficiently managed electric grid can put them to use. We’re literally throwing away pollution-free electricity during certain periods, and the problem will only get worse.”
CAISO projected savings to consumers of up to $1.5 billion a year. A study from 2016 acknowledged the change would likely lead to the loss of thousands of construction jobs.
Consumer advocates and some environmental groups, meanwhile, worried that California was wrongly ceding oversight of the grid to the coal-friendly Trump administration. They also said it would undermine plans to generate most or all of the electricity consumed in California from renewable sources.
“California dodged a dangerous bullet that would have subjected our electricity market and grid to big-money, fossil-fuel interests who wanted to break down the clean energy protections California has enacted over the past decade,” said Loretta Lynch, a former utilities commissioner and opponent of the bill.
“Toni Atkins and the Legislature have shown true leadership in beating back this wolf in sheep’s clothing. This bad bill would have made California’s clean energy future vulnerable to Donald Trump and his coal cronies who would have run amuk not only in our electricity industry but also would have damaged our economy. California has protected itself and its clean energy leadership.”
San Diego attorney Michael Aguirre, who represented the Imperial Irrigation District, agreed.
“California has made an historic commitment to be 100 percent renewable while avoiding the mistake of AB 813, which would have transferred renewable jobs to other states,” he said.
The idea of transforming the state power grid into a regional, multistate enterprise was first included in 1996, when California lawmakers deregulated the electricity sector.
The change stalled after out-of-state companies manipulated the market in 2000 and 2001, driving up power rates in California by $20 billion or more and prompting rolling blackouts across the state.
The electricity crisis helped spark the successful recall effort in 2003 against then-Gov. Gray Davis.
The proposal resurfaced in 2015, when Brown signed a law directing CAISO to study the impact of a implementing a multistate power grid.
The 2016 analysis was issued but the bill failed to pass after questions were raised about how grid officials would integrate the operations of nonprofit CAISO with PacifiCorp., an Oregon utility owned by the Berkshire Hathaway empire controlled by investor Warren Buffett.
Supporters of the project tried a different approach the following year, when they reintroduced the plan in the final days of the 2017 legislative session.
Holden pulled the legislation days later, after community groups mobilized to defeat the proposal and newspaper editorial writers across the state urged lawmakers not to enact such a significant change without a fuller public debate.
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