California companies, want clean energy? Back this bill

California companies, want clean energy? Back this bill

Inside the Sacramento capitol, a little-known bill just took a green leap forward.
ShutterstockMark Aplet
Inside the Sacramento capitol, a little-known bill just took a green leap forward.

California’s ambitious plan to expand clean energy and cut global warming pollution took a much-heralded step forward June 3, when the state Senate approved the Democratic leadership's package of climate legislation and sent it to the Assembly. By mostly party-line votes, lawmakers approved the 12 bills in the package, which would set a goal of 50 percent renewables statewide by 2030.

Curiously, however, there has been little mention of another bill, SB 286, which was not part of the formal climate package but could start driving new emissions reductions within months. The bill would allow large electricity users to sidestep their local utilities and contract directly for 100 percent renewable energy. This measure also passed the Senate, but with an overwhelming bipartisan vote, 34-2.

Put simply, SB 286 creates the nation’s biggest new program in recent years to accommodate the growing demand by companies, colleges and universities to green their electricity supply and meet sustainability goals.

Beginning in January, SB 286 would allow these large users to purchase 8,000 GWh annually of 100 percent renewable energy through California’s Direct Access program. In the process, the state's greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by about 1.7 million tons annually, the same as a 2 percent increase in the Renewable Portfolio Standard — all on a voluntary, business-friendly basis.

Until now, California firms that wanted to green their electricity supply have found it surprisingly hard going, as reported in GreenBiz last year. But if the amended SB 286 becomes law, these firms can become real drivers of the state's clean-energy transition. They will be able to demonstrate their environmental leadership where it counts most — at home in California.

Why so little attention for this path-breaking bill? There are logical reasons, mainly having to do with the genesis of SB 286. The bill was born as a vehicle for expanding retail competition for cheaper and largely “brown power” — energy from polluting sources.

But Senate leaders intervened behind the scenes, insisting that SB 286 must complement, not detract from, their other climate bills. So SB 286 was amended and re-amended, transforming it from an ungainly brown duckling into a green swan. In its current incarnation, SB 286 is arguably one of the most effective climate-related bills before the Legislature.

The bill’s author, Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles), described its new potential on the Senate floor before the June 3 vote:

“This really envisions a Direct Access market I call Green Access. It’s about customer choice, choice to choose green energy that exceeds what the grid can provide. Innovation and creativity and investment in new green resources that we talk about all the time — and the green jobs.”

What happens next is crucial. Thus far, SB 286 has lacked organized support from environmental groups and clean energy industry advocates because as recently as last week, the bill simply wasn’t green. Now, however, it’s time for green stakeholders to get off the sidelines.

Big investor-owned utilities and the backers of old-style energy deregulation are down but not yet out. In the Assembly they likely will make a more concerted effort to weaken the measure and water down the 100 percent requirement. If renewables supporters really want to enlist California's major companies and universities in the clean energy revolution, they will need to step up and stand behind the Senate’s new initiative.

For more information about the Senate leadership’s 12-bill climate package, see here. And for more information about SB 286, see here.