California could solidify its position as a global leader on the issue of climate change in the coming weeks, when the state Legislature considers a bill that would push for the state to obtain all its electricity from renewable sources by 2045.
Hawaii is the only other state in America to have committed to that ambitious goal, but the 50th state is 1/15 the size of California and is home to just 3.5 percent as many people.
If lawmakers approve Senate Bill 100 before the end of their session in September, it would make California the biggest economy on earth committed to getting 100 percent of its power from wind, solar and other clean alternatives.
The sponsor of the legislation, State Senate President Kevin de Leon, began the push for the bill with a telephone press conference Wednesday. The Los Angeles Democrat called S.B. 100 “a wonderful opportunity to reduce our greenhouse gases, clean our air up and put people to work.”
Plans to limit coal and petroleum-powered electricity led to pitched battles in the state capitol just a few years ago. But the new proposal is expected to have a better than 50-50 chance of passage because of the legislature’s big Democratic majorities and the fact that previous carbon reduction goals have been met ahead of schedule.
The vote will come not long after Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to extend California’s ground-breaking cap-and-trade program from 2020 to 2030. The continuation of the pollution-credit trading program put the state in the forefront of the campaign to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to slow the warming of the planet, not long after President Donald Trump pulled back from the issue by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.
De Leon has framed the commitment to solar and wind energy as a winner on multiple fronts: adding to the 500,000 clean-energy jobs already created in California, pulling air-fouling plants out of mostly poor and minority communities and helping to limit Earth warming below the 1.5-degree-Celsius increase that scientists say could cause cataclysmic results.
The Senate president noted that the deadline for the shift to 100 percent clean electricity would arrive in just 28 years. While that seems like a short time frame, de Leon asked Californians to think about how much progress had been made on wind and solar power in that time and to think about the break-neck rate of progress by the state's most-celebrated companies.
“Imagine knowing 28 years ago that California companies such as Google and Facebook and Uber, Lyft and the iPhone were just around the corner,” de Leon said. “That is the type of opportunity we have today, right here in California.”
California’s giant investor-owned utilities are getting close to 28 percent of their power from wind, solar and other clean sources and are on target to meet the previous standard of 50 percent renewable power by the year 2030. De Leon’s proposal would up that requirement to 60% by the same date (and the 50 percent threshold four years earlier.)
Those would be strict mandates, with the clean power to come from a previously-designated list of sources under the so-called Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS.) Other relatively clean power generators –like large hydroelectric dams and wood burning biomass plants—would not be permissible alternatives to meet the 2030 goal.
But after 2030, the new legislation would allow another 15 years to reach the 100 percent renewable threshold. De Leon and the environmentalists supporting the legislation are leaving open the definition of what will constitute “clean” sources to meet the 100 percent goal.
Hydroelectric plants may not be considered as a legitimate clean source. The reason? While water spilling over turbines creates electricity with almost no pollution, the dams built to harness the water power can cause tremendous harm to ecosystems. Most environmental activists would prefer to get all the state’s power from other sources, without relying on the blocking off rivers – even if those dam projects were completed decades ago.
S.B. 100 will have a broad swath of support, not only from the public (which has said in polls it wants to get power from clean sources) and green organizations but from dozens of California businesses that already have committed to getting all of their electricity from clean sources.
But some of California’s biggest investor owned utilities—like Southern California Edison and the Bay Area’s Pacific Gas & Electric — have expressed trepidation about the 100% renewable goal. Edison on Wednesday called the bill “a work in progress,” but in a June letter to a key Assembly member said its stance on the proposal was “oppose unless amended.”
Utilities have said in the past that they are getting more regulation and scrutiny than vehicle pollution, even though the latter pumps much greater carbon loads into the atmosphere. The June letter from SCE’s Darren Bouton, the utility's state public affairs director, urged lawmakers to “pursue emissions reduction opportunities across all sectors, at the lowest cost to customers and the economy.”
The letter suggests the state should be more flexible in setting the 100 percent renewables goal — both in terms of what sources are deemed as clean and in allowing power agencies the ability to “study and revisit the targets set forth in the bill.”
A PG&E spokeswoman said Wednesday that the utility is "reviewing the bill as it exists today" and does not yet have a position, while reiterating an oft-stated goal of all the state's big utilities — to support lawmakers in their legislative goals.
Still, principal backers of S.B. 100 sounded optimistic this week, noting how far they had come since the turn of the new millennium, when the science of climate change was still being widely questioned. Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, recalls “a wall of opposition” that met an early goal of getting 17% of electricity from clean sources.
“The question is not ‘Can we get there?’ The question is now ‘How and how fast?’ And you don’t have to educate people over in the building any more about how it works,” said Phillips, the environmental group’s lead lobbyist, referring to the state capitol building in Sacramento.
The bill, already approved by the state Senate in May, is expected to face a tougher path in the Assembly. But the opposition that previous climate proposals faced is not as hard and fixed in the case of S.B. 100. And, while some Assembly members rely on contributions from the electric utilities, supporters believe most would be willing to buck the opposition.
“It’s in the best interest of the state, the planet and the state’s economic viability in the future. It also makes the state a leader in new technologies,” said Phillips.
Despite his reputation as a leader on global warming issues, Governor Jerry Brown has not staked out a position on S.B. 100. He is believed to be a supporter, but has surprised Sacramento-watchers in the past.
The retreat of the Trump administration from the issue makes it even more important for California to go ahead, argued Phillips, the Sierra Club lobbyist.
“We need to send a signal that, even when federal government is doing things to discourage renewable energy, California is saying, ‘You need to keep innovating and keep coming up with solutions.’ “