Learning from California's clean energy ambition

Learning from California's clean energy ambition

California clean energy landscape
Shutterstock Geoff Hardy

This article is drawn from the VERGE Weekly newsletter from GreenBiz, running Wednesdays.

Recently, a disquieting pattern has emerged. Moderate national leaders — on both the center-left and center-right — in some of the world’s richest and most advanced countries are finding it far easier to talk about climate change than to actually fight it.

One way this pattern holds up: While every country except the United States supports the Paris climate goals, no major developed country is on track to meet them.

Last week, Australia’s government fell apart over a climate bill. Canada just weakened Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s signature climate policy. Even Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom — where right-wing governments have made combatting climate change a national priority — seem likely to miss their goals.

The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer wrote, "The global climate action of 2016 may be producing something like a worldwide climate backlash — especially in countries with powerful fossil fuel interests, like Australia and Canada. Or — far more worryingly for climate advocates — these changes in policy may be trickling down from the biggest historical emitter of greenhouse gases of them all: the United States."

To be fair, I don’t believe President Donald Trump — no matter how execrable his actions — should be held responsible for the world’s failures. But Meyer does make a good point. Trump’s emissions rollbacks for cars, trucks and power plants, his new trade policy and tariffs and his general anti-climate change rhetoric have had a global impact with real economic consequences.

That’s why I’m excited about some historic news that could become a catalyst for significant climate action: California is on the verge of passing legislation requiring 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from carbon-free sources.

As you may recall, Hawaii led the way by establishing the country's first 100 percent renewable portfolio standard in 2015. Now, California is on track to establish the first 100 percent clean energy standard in the United States — and this one will cover 27 times more electricity.

Given the size of California’s economy and the bill’s ambitions, experts say this law "would be the most important climate law in U.S. history."

Energy researcher Jesse Jenkins tweeted that the bill, known as SB100, "is historic and significant for two reasons: (1) It commits the most populous U.S. state and the fifth largest economy in the world to completely decarbonize its electricity supply by 2045, and (2) it shifts from a focus on renewables to a technology-inclusive focus on carbon-free electricity. Ends not means."

The first is consistent with the key role electricity must play in helping cut emissions across the economy as a whole. The second is important, because studies confirm (PDF) that an inclusive mix of low-carbon resources is a more cost-effective and less risky route to decarbonize electricity than a more narrow focus on wind, solar and energy storage.

But "the amount of effort to achieve the last 20 percent might well be as much as it took to reach the first 80," noted Lawrence Livermore researcher Jane Wong in the MIT Technology Review's coverage of the legislation. It could require expensive investments in energy storage, politically tricky expansions of transmission infrastructure, greater reliance on controversial carbon-free sources such as advanced nuclear or fossil fuel plants coupled with carbon capture technology.  

Similar to Hawaii, California will act as a test bed for what is technically achievable, providing a massive market for the rollout of clean energy technologies and building a body of knowledge that others states and nations can leverage — showing that you can operate a grid with high levels of intermittent renewables.

And good news: That’s something that can be exported to the rest of the world.

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