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Calif. board adopts most aggressive energy standard

California regulators adopt nation's most aggressive clean energy standards for power companies, which will have to get one-third of their electricity from renewable sources.
California for years has encouraged renewable energy like these wind turbines near Palm Springs. Some want to significantly increase that output by requiring that utilities get 33 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2020.Sandy Huffaker / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

California regulators have adopted the nation's most aggressive clean energy standards for power companies, which will have to get one-third of their electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind within a decade.

The California Air Resources Board on Thursday voted unanimously to strengthen standards that were already among the nation's toughest. Utilities in the state have been scrambling to get 20 percent of their power from renewables by next year.

Board chairwoman Mary D. Nichols says the new regulations will save consumers money while guaranteeing a steady energy supply.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger favors the change as a way to meet the requirements of 2006 law mandating statewide reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

California already is pushing utilities to reach a 20 percent standard by next year, which the state's large utilities have been struggling to accomplish. Toughening the rules could prompt regulators across the country to do the same, but some consumers fret that they will end up paying for the changes in the form of higher utility bills.

"To the extent that prices do become unreasonably elevated, there must be a safety valve to protect retail customers," said Matthew Freedman, a staff attorney at the Utility Reform Network, a consumer advocacy group.

At a time when nearly one-eighth of California's work force is unemployed, some want the state to dial back, not bolster, its leading-edge air pollution rules. A November ballot measure bankrolled by Texas oil companies would delay the state's landmark 2006 global warming law until the unemployment rate falls dramatically.

Advocates of the proposed utility standards plan say it would usher in so-called "green" jobs. "It will help clean our air and bring new solar and wind energy facilities to California with thousands of jobs in construction, operation and spin off industries," said Mary D. Nichols, chairman of the board considering the new rules.

Opponents — including some clean-air advocates — say it is filled with loopholes that would allow utilities to circumvent clean-energy upgrades even as customers face the prospect of higher rates.

Regulators say California now gets nearly 14 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, excluding large hydroelectric plants and nuclear power, which do not count toward either the proposed or the existing standards.

Schwarzenegger has said he favors raising the state's renewable mandate to 33 percent as one way to meet the requirements of the 2006 global warming law, which seeks to reduce California's greenhouse gas emmissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

The California Legislature failed to vote by the end of its session on a bill that would have adopted the 33 percent standard, which is why the California Air Resources board took up the issue Thursday.

Laura Wisland, a clean energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said her group wants a 33 percent standard, but not this one. She said the air board's plan would actually slow clean technology investment in the state by letting utilities meet the entire 33 percent by buying "renewable energy credits" derived from sun, wind or geothermal power generated outside the state.

Under current law, utilities are not authorized to use any renewable energy credits to satisfy the 20 percent targets. All the energy must be produced in California or in another state connected to its power grid.

In a state with a 12.4 percent unemployment rate and heated contests for governor and senator, the debate over whether a renewable electricity standard will create or kill jobs has been fierce.

Congress considered imposing a national renewable electricity mandate in the latest energy bill, but the idea was nixed amid heavy opposition from utilities. Senate Democrats hope to pass a bill after the midterm elections that would require utilities to get 15 percent of their energy from such sources by 2021.