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As crises collide, can California meet its climate goals?

Inside the Golden State's golden opportunity to thrive in a warming world.

California climate change

GreenBiz photocollage

Climate. Heatwaves. Wildfires. Blackouts. Pandemic. Recession. Unemployment. Social unrest. Climate, again. 

The tangle of troubles California is struggling with has no precedent. Against a backdrop of rising environmental anxiety, with wildfires lasting longer, spreading further and damaging more acreage and communities than ever before, the pandemic triggered a sharp recession and spike in unemployment. With COVID-19 and joblessness hitting low-income and minority communities especially hard, police killings sparked months of protests against systemic racism and economic inequity. And just as the need for public safety-net programs couldn’t be higher, California faces a crippling collapse in tax revenue. 

For Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air Resources Board — the state’s key architect of climate and environmental policy — these near-term problems may be worse than we’ve seen, but they are not new, and the fix will come from commitment:

We've been shouting it from the rooftops for a long time that we were headed in this direction, although we hoped we wouldn't get here quite so quickly, or quite so drastically. I have seen that people can think their way out of amazingly difficult traps if they decide to. We have the human capital and intelligence, if we have the will… You can't fix one thing without the other. If we don't come up with solutions that are multi-factored, we won't get very far. 

To explore how California can solve these interlinked problems, Nichols was joined by Southern California Edison’s Carla Peterman in a dialogue moderated by Sarah Golden, GreenBiz’s senior energy analyst, during a breakout session at last week’s VERGE 20 conference. 

Nichols, a veteran of state and federal environmental and energy policy since the 1970s, is retiring from CARB soon and is a contender for a top environmental role in a Biden administration, as GreenBiz Senior Writer Katie Fehrenbacher recently reported.

As senior vice president of strategies and regulatory affairs at Southern California Edison (SCE), Peterman manages a business that serves more than 15 million Californians and more than 280,000 businesses across 15 counties, including much of Los Angeles and a swath of the state that stretches to the Nevada border. 

Double duty

For Peterman, who also served as a commissioner at the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates the state’s electricity, water and natural gas services, the economic crisis has exacerbated troubles stemming from the wildfires. Utilities have been pushed not just to maintain grid stability but also to maintain energy services to some customers who are suddenly less able to pay. As Peterman said:

To give you an example of how these things all collide, we're seeing the impact of climate change from severe heat on grid reliability. Dealing with these issues is complicated by the pandemic. It's more difficult to help people in emergency situations. We've seen an increase in electricity usage during COVID of 8 percent because people are at home. We also saw an increase in use during the heatwave a couple of months ago. And we've seen an increase in need for our customer assistance programs of 18 percent. Utilities have stopped disconnecting anyone who's not able to pay. It's so important to be in a state that has those safety nets for individuals. 

Funding the recovery will be a challenge. "The pandemic has had an impact on our ability to roll out any kind of new programs until we can get the state budget back in shape," Nichols said. Yet much of the investment necessary to transition California away from fossil fuels can do double duty, helping hard-hit communities restore jobs while also improving energy services. 

SCE is seeing wildfire mitigation and grid investment as opportunities to invest in local businesses, and to cultivate more diverse partners, including a scholarship program to bring more Blacks into the skilled energy workforce, Peterman said. 

The shift to electric vehicles (EVs), accelerated by a recent state order curtailing sales of fossil fuel-powered vehicles by 2035, creates a need for investment that can rebuild and upgrade the grid in underserved communities, Peterman explained: 

We believe that a significant amount of electrification ultimately is the lowest-cost way to reach California’s climate targets. But it's important to make sure that everyone can access all of those EVs, having access to renewable energy and building electrification. It can oftentimes be those in disadvantaged communities who don't make that transition as quickly and then end up paying more. Ultimately, we want to make sure electricity stays affordable because we want people to use it more. 

Towards this goal, SCE recently got the OK to launch a $436 million buildout of EV charging infrastructure, the most ambitious of any U.S. utility, Peterman said. The plan calls for half of chargers to be installed in disadvantaged communities. 

It's our job to set the bar high and to show the fortitude.

If all goes to plan, SCE will be able to both improve electrical service to those communities while also improving its business. This kind of synergy — with private companies innovating pragmatic strategies that help advance climate policy and benefit the public — are crucial to recovering and moving towards net-zero emissions. And the scale of the crisis demands more collaboration, faster. But not all businesses are there yet, Nichols said: 

What I see as a major impediment is the lack of willingness on the part of at least some of our business ecosystem to come to the table with their most constructive contribution. I am going to call out — because I think I have to — the debate over what we mean by zero, whether we're going to zero or "near zero." It boils down to: Are we going to continue to subsidize somewhat cleaner technologies versus setting our sights out on the ultimate goal and doing everything we can to get there? 

Promising precedents

By this measure, California’s track record of pioneering climate technologies offers promising precedents. From solar panel materials to EVs and grid management software, homegrown technologies are rapidly remaking California’s energy, transportation and economic systems. Yet in the next phase of recovery and decarbonization, affordability and accessibility will be a higher priority. Peterman is hopeful that innovation can help drive down costs. She said: 

I'm starting to geek out thinking about things like sensors and technologies that help to reduce latency. How do we allow devices to communicate with each other? And how do we really bring customers’ distributed resources forward to support grid resiliency? ... With technology advancements and the need for affordability, it's important to keep pushing the envelope. That's my shout-out to all the techie people out there: We still need your ingenuity! 

From a policy perspective, Nichols is adamant the state will continue to lead. "It's our job to set the bar high and to show the fortitude that says we're going to stick with these goals even if somebody gets a little bent out of shape along the way, and we have to figure out how to accommodate them," Nichols said. "Maybe we need to be flexible about the means for getting there. But we got to be willing to say, ‘We know we can get there.’ We’ve got to set that goal."

After all, the Golden State is already home to the largest cap-and-trade program in the United States. More recently, Sacramento has unveiled ambitious goals to be carbon-neutral by 2045, to shift the grid and its nation’s largest fleet of cars to be zero-emission by 2035. Along the way, the state has emerged as a hothouse of climate-focused businesses, from innovative manufacturers such as Tesla to renewable energy giants such as Sunrun to efficiency standard-setters such as Google.  

No state can match California's challenges, or the scale of its possibilities, in untangling this knot of problems. "But if anyone can do it, it’s California," GreenBiz’s Golden said. 

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