NEWS California Leads a Quiet Revolution — International New York Times

From: Inter­na­tional New York Times, Octo­ber 5, 2015

BERKELEY, Cal­i­for­nia — Cal­i­for­nia is cruis­ing toward its 2020 goal for increas­ing renew­able energy and is set­ting far more ambi­tious tar­gets for the future. Its large-​​scale solar arrays pro­duced more energy in 2014 than those in all other states com­bined. Half the nation’s solar home rooftops are in the state, and thou­sands more are added each week.

With its pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics, high-​​tech bent and abun­dant sun­shine, Cal­i­for­nia is fast ramp­ing up its pro­duc­tion of clean elec­tric­ity, set­ting an exam­ple its lead­ers hope the rest of the coun­try, and other nations, will fol­low as they seek to cut emis­sions of climate-​​warming car­bon dioxide.

It’s hard to over­state the impor­tance of Cal­i­for­nia in terms of renew­ables,” said William Nel­son, head of North Amer­i­can analy­sis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “It’s like an exper­i­ment in terms of how quickly we can add solar to the grid.

Fif­teen years after an energy cri­sis, caused partly by dereg­u­la­tion and mar­ket manip­u­la­tion, brought black­outs and price spikes, the shift has been remark­ably smooth, many ana­lysts say. Even with­out count­ing the big con­tri­bu­tion from home solar gen­er­a­tion, 26 per­cent of the state’s power this year will come from clean sources like the sun and wind, Bloomberg New Energy Finance esti­mates. The national aver­age is about 10 percent.

Con­tracts already in place vir­tu­ally guar­an­tee that the state will reach its goal of get­ting 33 per­cent of elec­tric­ity from renew­ables by 2020, a num­ber that does not include most home gen­er­a­tion. And at the rate Cal­i­for­nia has been going, a new tar­get of 50 per­cent for 2030 is within reach, Mr. Nel­son said.

It’s kind of a quiet rev­o­lu­tion,” said Daniel Kam­men, direc­tor of the Renew­able and Appro­pri­ate Energy Lab­o­ra­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. “Noth­ing weird or strange has hap­pened, elec­tric­ity prices haven’t shot up or down.”


Cal­i­for­nia has avoided the steep jump in prices that Ger­many ini­tially suf­fered in its push for clean power. Renew­ables have added between 3 per­cent and 5 per­cent to the cost of energy, esti­mated the Cal­i­for­nia Pub­lic Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion, a reg­u­la­tory body. While per-​​unit prices are among the high­est in the nation, strin­gent energy con­ser­va­tion mea­sures have helped keep monthly bills $20 lower than the United States aver­age, since Cal­i­forn­ian homes use almost 40 per­cent less elec­tric­ity than the typ­i­cal Amer­i­can house­hold.

A new indus­try of home solar panel instal­la­tion and financ­ing, spear­headed by com­pa­nies like SolarCity and Sun­run, has sprung up in Cal­i­for­nia, and many of those com­pa­nies have expanded else­where in the coun­try, Mr. Nel­son said.

It’s a breed­ing ground of activ­ity that is impact­ing other states,” he said.

Cal­i­for­nia is not alone, of course, in its push toward renew­ables. Ger­many gets about 30 per­cent of its power from clean sources; Den­mark has passed 40 per­cent and is aim­ing for 100 per­cent by 2050.

There have been dif­fi­cul­ties. The big influx of solar and wind power has changed the hour-​​to-​​hour pat­tern of elec­tric­ity pro­duc­tion, with energy flood­ing the grid dur­ing the sun­ni­est times, cre­at­ing a mis­match with demand that has some­times forced offi­cials to tem­porar­ily switch off energy from the new sources.

New trans­mis­sion lines are needed to keep up with the con­struc­tion of solar and wind farms, and so are high-​​tech nat­ural gas plants able to switch on and off quickly to com­ple­ment the fluc­tu­a­tions of the sun and wind.

But so far the infu­sion of new clean energy has not caused reli­a­bil­ity prob­lems, as some crit­ics had feared it might, said David Olsen, a gov­er­nor on the board of the Cal­i­for­nia Inde­pen­dent Sys­tem Oper­a­tor, which man­ages the state’s elec­tric grid.

We’ve seen no impact,” he said. “When we get to 40 per­cent, 50 per­cent, that will def­i­nitely be an issue. But we know what the tech­ni­cal issues are and we’re plan­ning for them. We’re highly con­fi­dent that we will be able to oper­ate the grid reli­ably when it is dom­i­nated by renew­able energy.”

The incen­tives and reg­u­la­tions dri­ving the change are under­pinned by an order in 2005 by then-​​Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneg­ger that Cal­i­for­nia slash green­house gas emis­sions by 80 per­cent from 1990 lev­els by 2050. In April, Gov. Jerry Brown added an interim tar­get of a 40 per­cent emis­sions cut by 2030, also based on 1990 levels.

Last month, leg­is­la­tors wrote into law Mr. Brown’s goal of get­ting 50 per­cent of power from clean sources by 2030, although pres­sure from the oil indus­try forced the governor’s allies to drop a related piece of their cli­mate pack­age, a require­ment to halve petro­leum use.

Fong Wan, senior vice pres­i­dent for energy pol­icy and pro­cure­ment at Pacific Gas & Elec­tric, said that while the util­ity sup­ported the carbon-​​cutting goals, it wanted more free­dom to decide how to reach them. Rather than man­dat­ing spe­cific per­cent­ages of renew­able power, he said, reg­u­la­tions should focus on the over­rid­ing goal of cut­ting emissions.

We would like the flex­i­bil­ity to choose how to accom­plish” those cuts, he said. “We are con­cerned with the unin­tended con­se­quences or out­come if you have very spe­cific goals, because you may end up with a sub­op­ti­mal solution.”

Another util­ity pri­or­ity has sparked a bat­tle with the grow­ing solar rooftop sec­tor. Big providers like PG&E are los­ing rev­enue from cus­tomers who gen­er­ate their own power, enjoy­ing smaller monthly bills while still draw­ing on grid elec­tric­ity at times. The util­i­ties want those cus­tomers to pay a larger share of the cost of main­tain­ing elec­tric­ity lines and plants.

Reg­u­la­tors are con­sid­er­ing revis­ing rates to address that con­cern, anger­ing rooftop panel com­pa­nies who warn that a pack­age of changes pro­posed by util­i­ties would gut their indus­try and under­mine California’s posi­tion as a cli­mate leader.

Oth­ers pre­dict the clean energy tar­gets will harm the wider economy.

Small busi­nesses are wor­ried about their own elec­tric rates and large busi­nesses are wor­ried about whether they can pro­duce and con­tinue to grow in Cal­i­for­nia,” said Loren Kaye, pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­for­nia Foun­da­tion for Com­merce and Edu­ca­tion, a research group affil­i­ated with the Cal­i­for­nia Cham­ber of Com­merce. “More and more indus­tries that are even some­what depen­dent on elec­tric­ity are going to be lured elsewhere.”

The cham­ber, he said, would rather see a “cap and trade” approach that lets the mar­ket find the best way of cut­ting green­house gases. Cal­i­for­nia has such an emis­sions trad­ing sys­tem, but it cur­rently has lit­tle impact on elec­tric­ity, mak­ing a big­ger dif­fer­ence in other areas, like the price of gasoline.

Offi­cials say the renew­ables push has helped, not hurt, the economy.

We have suc­cess­fully delinked G.D.P. from car­bon, and what that means is that we have had con­tin­ued eco­nomic growth, we added 498,000 jobs, more jobs than any other state in the coun­try in 2014, and at the same time we have greatly reduced car­bon emis­sions,” Kevin de León, pres­i­dent pro tem­pore of the state sen­ate, said in a phone inter­view. “That’s why the Chi­nese, the Mex­i­cans, the Euro­pean Union, the Indi­ans are watch­ing what hap­pens” in California.

Chi­nese offi­cials, work­ing on their own enor­mous renew­ables pro­gram, have con­sulted with the state’s energy experts. California’s grid oper­a­tor is help­ing Mex­ico set up its own inde­pen­dent grid-​​management body, Mr. Olsen said. And with every state required by Pres­i­dent Obama’s Clean Power Plan to cre­ate a roadmap for cut­ting its car­bon emis­sions, many are likely to look more closely at California’s efforts.

That impact, said Mr. Kam­men of the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, will be crit­i­cal if California’s work is to make a real dif­fer­ence in slow­ing the pace of cli­mate change.

The lessons from the Cal­i­for­nias, the Den­marks, the Ger­manys have to really spread,” he said. “It doesn’t do us much good if a few places are really green, if the over­all tra­jec­tory doesn’t change.”

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