California's energy policies have ripple effects across the West

As the Golden State shifts from coal to clean, economies in other states feel it too.

  • The 500-foot stack at the Mohave Generating Station outside Laughlin, Nevada, comes down in 2011, after being shuttered in 2005 by Southern California Edison.

    John Gurzinski
  • Solar modules are reflected in the sunglasses of David Chiang, a project manager at Southern California Edison's Porterville solar array.

    Ken James/Bloomberg via Getty
  • California state Sen. Fran Pavley gets a shake from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the signing of the Global Warming Solutions Act in 2006.

    David Paul Morris/Getty
 

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How quickly everything changes. Today, Douglas attests, California utilities are well on the way to meeting the required standards. Energy-efficiency savings have doubled in the last decade, and wind and solar are taking over a larger share of the grid. Last year, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced with much fanfare that it was ending its contract for coal-fired electricity from Arizona's Navajo Generating Station in 2015, five years earlier than planned, and will pull out of its deal to buy coal-fired power from Utah's Intermountain Power Project two years early, in 2025. As Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric drop their remaining contracts, coal power imports to California are coming to an end.

California's green victory, however, is a mixed bag for the communities that exported that coal power. A chunk of the Navajo Nation's budget – and hundreds of jobs – depend on power plants and Colorado Plateau mines. California's divestment from those plants will bring cleaner air to the reservation, but leave a huge financial void. Other coal-power exporting communities, such as Delta, Utah, and Farmington, N.M., face similar challenges.

Which isn't to say they can't keep selling electricity to California; it just has to be cleaner than coal. California now gets 10 percent of its electricity from non-coal-burning, low-carbon, out-of-state sources, including the massive hydropower dams on the Columbia and Colorado rivers and Arizona's Palo Verde Nuclear Plant. Utah's Intermountain Power Project will convert part of its operations to send natural gas-fired electricity to Los Angeles.

Those sources won't satisfy California's renewable energy demands – neither large hydropower nor nuclear nor natural gas count toward the mandate. But at least one proposed energy development will: Anschutz Corp., which owns both Los Angeles's largest stadium, the Staples Center, and large swaths of Wyoming ranchland, plans to build a wind farm in Wyoming with the generating capacity of two coal plants, along with its own 750-mile transmission line. And it's all for California, where a kilowatt hour of electricity costs more than it does anywhere else in the West.

Now the Golden State casts a new kind of shadow – or shines a bright light, as bordering states vie for a place in the world's sixth-largest economy, peddling electrons produced with everything from the earth's core heat to solar rays to steady mountain winds. "California sent a clear signal with its legislative policies that was heard in other states," says John Nielsen, executive director of the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, which has long fought to get California off coal. "And if California was interested in a cleaner energy mix, other states had to follow."

As for Pavley, though she hopes the other states manage a smooth economic transition, her concern is for California. "Times and technologies change," she says, and California isn't done changing. "We think of 33 percent as a floor," she says, "not a ceiling." She expects less resistance to the next renewable energy standard hike. "It's the most amazing thing," she says. "The utilities don't even show up at committee meetings anymore to object."