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

Fran Pavley didn't come to the California Assembly in 2001 intending to put a Utah coal plant out of business or its workers out of jobs. She ran for office because she cared about the environment and thought she might find some way to break the logjam that kept lawmakers from regulating greenhouse gas emissions. During Pavley's first week in office, representatives from the Blue Water Network and the Coalition for Clean Air pitched an idea: For years, California had a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set its own, stricter-than-federal standards for car exhaust. Why not pass a law to cut greenhouse gas emissions under the same authority?

Pavley, now a second-term state senator from the coast just north of Los Angeles, admits that she didn't quite understand the politics of it all. She succeeded nonetheless, and in 2002, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed Assembly Bill 1493, the "Clean Cars Standard," into law. The bill applied only to cars and trucks on California's roads; on its own, it could have little impact on global climate. Still, Pavley had established a beachhead: She had passed the country's first binding law to fight the pollution changing the climate.

In her next big move, Pavley went after the carbon footprint of energy production. More specifically, she went after coal. And this time, Pavley's legislating sent economic ripples far beyond her state's borders, to the communities of the rural Interior West that had over the past five decades come to depend on selling coal power to California's urban areas.

California has never had many coal plants; strict air-quality laws made them too expensive. Instead, starting in the 1960s, California utilities built thousands of miles of transmission lines to import electricity from Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Nevada. When Pavley joined the Legislature, Southern California utilities imported close to half of their electricity from out-of-state coal plants, and exported the consequences – from respiratory illnesses to acid rain and mercury-polluted waterways. Environmentalists referred to it as "California's coal shadow." Toward the end of the 1980s, however, it had become increasingly clear that California couldn't completely escape that shadow: The coal burned for California's electricity emitted more carbon dioxide every year than 11 million cars. And carbon dioxide was warming the planet.

In 2002, the California Legislature ordered the state's utilities to begin adding renewables to their energy portfolios, 1 percent per year until they got to 20, with a deadline of 2017. Grid operators were urged to put efficiency and renewables before fossil-fueled electricity. But utilities, still reeling from the Enron-induced electricity crisis of 2000 and 2001, feared shortages and blackouts, and some were still planning more coal plants for neighboring states. Projects had been proposed in Nevada, Utah and New Mexico to serve San Diego and Los Angeles; the governors of California, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming were collaborating on the $3 billion Frontier transmission line to bring some wind, but even more coal-fired generation, to California. Had those plans succeeded, the carbon savings from Pavley's tailpipe law would have been wiped out completely.

Pavley and her allies weren't about to let that happen, and they had momentum on their side. In 2006, the Legislature easily passed a law moving the utilities' renewable energy mix deadline to 2010, and state Sen. Don Perata successfully carried a bill forbidding any new investment in power plants that emitted more than 1,100 pounds of carbon per megawatt hour – half what an average coal plant produces. Most sweeping of all, though, was Assembly Bill 32, the "Global Warming Solutions Act," which Pavley and Assemblyman Fabian Nuñez wrote in 2005 to push the state's total greenhouse gas load – including pollutants created on the state's behalf beyond its borders – down to 1990 levels before 2020. The bill needed 41 votes to pass. By the time Pavley and her fellow legislators were ready to subject it to a vote in 2006, it had 43 sponsors.

It would take several years for California's regulators, legislators and agencies to figure out how to achieve the global warming law's goal. But one step was clear: The state had to raise its renewable energy mandate steeply and quickly. The California Air Resources Board recommended 33 percent by 2020; then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made that official in 2008. It was a staggeringly ambitious target. "It's our Manhattan Project," Paul Douglas, the manager of renewable resource planning at the California Public Utilities Commission, said at the time. The generation associated with 33 percent is going to be the equivalent of 100,000 gigawatt hours." For perspective, in 2008 Pacific Gas & Electric sold to its customers 85,000 gigawatt hours of electricity. Close to half the state's renewable energy back then came from geothermal fields, and even that supplied less than 5 percent of the watts on the California grid.

Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan Subscriber
Mar 18, 2014 02:35 PM
California's transition from coal to gas and renewables is commendable, but California is still in a pickle because of the drought and its anti-nuclear stance. In 2012 California increased its use of natural gas by 33%, not because of a reduction in coal, but because of a reduction in hydro power and nuclear. Shutting down the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS) accounted for approximately 9% of California's total in-state generation. It was unfortunate that they couldn't find a way to keep SONGS open because with over 100 nuclear plants in the U.S. running for over 40 years not one person has been injured or killed and no green house gas emitted from their operation. The same can't be said for gas. It should also be noted that California, as large as it is and with good wind from the ocean is now out of land for wind generation. That is why they are using other states land for their wind towers and transmission lines. In-state California wind generated only 4.6% of California's GWh. The SONGS nuclear plant generated 9% and used only about two square miles of land.
Guillaume Shearin
Guillaume Shearin Subscriber
Mar 18, 2014 03:01 PM
I beg to differ on the previous comment regarding California's stance on nuclear power. After years of looking at the storage issues regarding nuclear waste, I've come to the conclusion that there is no safe option for disposing of it that anyone is willing to pay for. As the Yucca Mountain fiasco illustrated, trying to find a place to safely house extremely toxic and corrosive nuclear materials for over 100,000 years is likely not possible. In shifting more to nuclear instead of fossil fuels, we would be substituting one deadly environmental poison for another. instead of the frequent claim that nuclear power is safe and has not harmed anyone in the US, what is more true is that we and the nuclear industry have been unwilling to research and admit the actual health costs already incurred from nuclear power, both in the US and worldwide. Readers do not have to look far to find alarming, well documented studies on the health effects of nuclear power plant accidents. They just are not part of the official narrative.
Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan Subscriber
Mar 18, 2014 04:09 PM
Nuclear waste has been stored safely since the beginning of nuclear power. It shouldn't even be referred to as waste because it will be used as fuel in Generation IV reactors just as Soviet era bomb material has been fueling current reactors. Yucca Mountain was a waste of money brought on by political operatives. The volume of waste from current reactors is small in volume, about the size of a football field six feet deep total for all reactors for 40 years. It will provide clean safe power for generations to come. Current reactors are model-T's compared to the new reactor designs that are coming. But those model-T's are damn good compared to other ways of generating electricity.
Alexander Clayton
Alexander Clayton Subscriber
Mar 19, 2014 09:48 PM
That nuclear is safe and viable is a canard - just ask the Navy servicemen and women now suing TEPCO over their radiation exposure in aiding with the Fukushima meltdown. Nuclear is expensive, ever-dangerous, and the private sector won't fund it, so why should we? We shouldn't.

California has made great strides toward the 33% RPS, and it can do better by creating vastly more efficient transmission and tapping into the thousands of square miles for solar installations, as well as looking into newer energy sources such as algae. It's a debatable question whether centralized or distributed generation is better (you kind of need to work toward both), but regardless, it's time to keep moving forward with efficiency and renewables, not relying on dirty, non-renewable and dangerous sources of energy. It's like kicking a bad drug addiction - not easy, but essential for long-term survival.

And finally, we're going to hopefully see how industrial hemp (grown by such radicals as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) can be used here in Colorado, as it's a renewable biofuel that doesn't require herbicides and pesticides.
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Mar 20, 2014 02:54 PM
With the state's ban on once-through cooling, not to mention bipartisan opposition in the state legislature and seismic risk, nuclear power won't be having a renaissance in California. As for San Onofre: It's pretty clear what did the plant in was economics. After the steam generator replacement went awry, Southern California Edison would have been hard-pressed to squeeze more out of ratepayers and disappoint shareholders. Plus, the waste story just gets worse and worse: A few years ago, I remember talking to experts on Yucca Mountain who were touting the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico as a model solution. As evidence by recent radiation leaks, that's not working out so well anymore:

Natural gas generation is also going up because "peaker plants" are useful for balancing intermittent wind and solar. That's not to say closing San Onofre doesn't have something to do with it, too, but it's not the whole story.

Judith Lewis Mernit
HCN Contributing Editor
Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan Subscriber
Mar 20, 2014 06:55 PM
I presume that you are saying San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS) was shutdown because of economics, not California's anti-nuclear stance. I suggest that the two are intertwined. An unsympathetic view of nuclear causes resistance from politicians and for-profit companies when unexpected costs occur and when gas is cheap. Nuclear plants in the U.S. are so expensive because they must be built to safety standards that no other energy sources are required to meet, i.e., more than 100% safe. My main concern is global warming caused by the burning of fossils fuels. An increase of 33% use of gas in California in 2012 due to the shutdown of SONGS is most distressing. How can we think wind and solar will significantly reduce the use of fossil fuels when it was only 6.3% of California's 2012 in-state and out-of-state Gwh generation after years of government incentives and public support? (Nationally wind and solar was 4.72% for 2012) The fossil fuels industries can do the math and so they are supportive of wind and solar because it poses no significant threat to their business. BP changed its name from British Petroleum to BP and now refers to itself as Beyond Petroleum. Oil companies gleefully picture wind towers on their ads to show how they support environmentalism. Sadly, anti-nuclear environmentalists are the unwitting allies of the fossil fuel industries. Thank goodness the rest of world does not make building nuclear reactors too expensive. There are over 60 plants under construction as of March, 2013 and many more planned.
Kevin Kane
Kevin Kane
Mar 23, 2014 12:33 AM
Come up with safe solutions for nuclear waste storage/disposal and then make all plants the exact same model, every one of them engineered to be built and survive on the San Andreas fault and I may at least listen to nuclear as an option. In Washington State the Hanford Nuclear Reservation seems to have no solution as it leaks into the Columbia River. I am all for asking people to make sacrifices to reduce green house gases while we figure out and bring online large scale, clean renewable power. If people do not change then legislate needed change. We can start by bringing back the 55 mph speed limit.
Carol Carson
Carol Carson Subscriber
Mar 25, 2014 04:02 PM
San Onofre perches on a earthquake fault line;'nough said.
Judith Lewis Mernit
Judith Lewis Mernit Subscriber
Mar 25, 2014 09:00 PM
So does Diablo Canyon, which is still up and running:
Kevin Kane
Kevin Kane
Mar 27, 2014 01:55 AM
All of them designed to the same worst case Standards----all of them.
Jerry Nolan
Jerry Nolan Subscriber
Mar 27, 2014 12:18 PM
There are some surprising things to be learned from nuclear reactors in earthquake zones. The first lesson is that if a reactor is engineered and run properly it can withstand a 9.0 earthquake and 40 foot tsunami. Compare the poorly designed and poorly run Fukushima Daichi plant to the Onagawa plant. The Onagawa plant not only withstood the 9.0 earthquake and 40 foot tsunami, it became a refuge for people escaping the tsunami that leveled the town of Onagawa. The most interesting lesson comes from the Fukushima Daichi catastrophe, because it is a worst case scenario that serves as an empirical test of what happens if there is a meltdown. The anti-nukes predict thousands of deaths, cancers, mutations, and Godzilla. This prediction has now been proven wrong at both Fukushima and Chernobyl. There have been no deaths or illnesses from the Fukushima meltdown and there have still been only 50 deaths from the Chernobyl meltdown. Even the 4000 predicted cancer deaths predicted shortly after Chernobyl by some respected international health organizations have not been realized. UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) now says of Chernobyl that “there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 20 years after the accident."
As for Fukushima, The World Health Organization's (WHO) report on Fukushima health risks says "for the general population inside and outside of Japan, the predicted risks are low and no observable increases in cancer rates above baseline rates are anticipated." Lesson learned is that the major beliefs of the anti-nuclear movement have been proven wrong.

So what went wrong? What was wrong was the the long-standing belief that radiation danger should be based on the Linear No Threshold (LNT) model that assumes that the long term risk of cancer is directly proportional to the dose. The LNT model has been called into question and is being reviewed by science. After all, why is the rate of cancer the same for populations living at high altitude, like Colorado, when compared to populations living in the lowlands? Based on the LNT model we should have a higher rate of cancer.

The Diablo Canyon reactor, having passed all the safety tests of the NRC, will withstand an earthquake just as well as the Onagawa plant did. To shut it down will result in more green house gases, same as shutting down nuclear plants anywhere.
Kevin Kane
Kevin Kane
Apr 09, 2014 04:37 PM
I do not believe any effects figures provided by either of these countries or the industry. Come on. Please present figures as to how much land has been vacated and effects on the locals that once lived there. Study downwinder cancer rates from the Hanford Reservation.