California enters the global climate stage

As Trump backs off climate agreement, California tackles ambitious renewables goal.


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California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West.

Five months into his presidency, Donald Trump has made the widely unpopular decision to withdraw the U.S. from the historic 2015 Paris Agreement. California Gov. Jerry Brown didn’t mince words calling the move by Trump “insane.” “California will resist because his effort is misguided,” Brown declared.

Californians seemed to welcome the governor’s quick-fire reply. According to a poll conducted by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California last year, two-thirds of residents support independent state efforts to address global warming. One out five believe state action on climate change will lead to a loss of jobs.

In short, while Washington takes big strides to dismantle former President Obama’s environmental legacy, California appears more determined than ever to reduce its CO2 emissions. Days after the Paris Agreement withdrawal, Brown headed to China  in an effort to tie California’s cap-and-trade system to that country’s emerging trading plan. Also, the State Senate passed a bill that would require California to obtain 100 percent of its electricity from renewable resources by 2045, making it one of the most aggressive targets in the country — if not the world. Observers say the chances of the bill getting Brown’s signature look very promising.

California Governor Jerry Brown speaks with Chinese Minister of Science and Technology Wan Gang during their meeting ahead of the Clean Energy Ministerial international forum in Beijing days after Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Brown and Gang signed a memorandum of understanding of Clean Technology together.
Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

According to the California Energy Commission, the state currently obtains about 30 percent of its electricity from renewables, twice as much as the U.S. as a whole. Its vision for the future includes a mix of approaches such as vehicle emissions limits, expanding its existing cap-and-trade system, energy efficiency standards and renewable portfolio standards for utilities. But while California’s new zero carbon goal is very ambitious — how realistic is it?

The bill sets a threshold but it doesn’t mandate how to reach it — except by keeping nuclear and hydroelectric power out of the equation. When asked  about that recently, author of the bill and the  Kevin de León, California Senate president pro tempore, said the state has met past targets, adding, “we always hit our goals. It doesn’t make a difference.”

“The news makes me a little nervous because 2045 isn’t that far away,” says Jason Cotrell, a renewable energy entrepreneur who was until recently employed at Colorado’s National Renewables Energy Laboratory as an expert on wind energy innovation. “Details matter.”

Can California “de-carbonize” its electric grid in less than three decades? Currently, the power system relies on natural gas to meet the changes in electricity demand beyond what’s provided by renewable sources, and according to the California Energy Commission, gas is still the state’s largest main source of electricity. What will replace gas? And how will utilities deal with the challenge of energy storage? Is a 100 percent renewable grid technically feasible? And, would it bring rates up for consumers?

“Maybe the 100 percent renewables goal will turn out to be too expensive, but the real value of the law is the signal it gives to the rest of the country that ‘we’re going to do this,’” Cotrell says. “California is playing a bigger role and people across the country are looking to it to lead the way.”

Cotrell himself is looking to California for work and inspiration. After 23 years at NREL, he is now exploring a collaboration with the University of California at Irvine to develop 3-D printing technology to update existing wind energy infrastructure and build bigger and taller wind turbine towers (the higher these towers go, the more energy the turbines capture). “If the federal government isn’t going to do it, those who can have an obligation — an ethical mandate — to step up,” he says.

Trump’s 2018 budget proposes the elimination of some Department of Energy offices and large cuts in renewable energy research, including the work done at NREL, which currently has a $292 million budget and 2,200 employees. In response, various national business groups representing renewable energy technologies, developers, financiers and buyers recently penned a letter requesting that Congress continue to fund and support renewable energy programs.

“Our industry will invest $85 billion and create 8,000 manufacturing jobs in the U.S. by 2020,” wrote Tom Kiernan, American Wind Energy Association CEO. “Maintaining these vital research programs at current levels will help America stay at the leading edge of innovation, accelerating investment and job creation into our nation’s future.”

According to NREL, 25 percent of the cost of wind energy goes to operations and maintenance, which means it generates more jobs than other renewable sources. Since the eighties, California has ranked as one of the top states for wind power installations with 12 wind-related manufacturing facilities. Its most recent renewable portfolio standard from 2015 required half of all utility retail sales to come from renewable resources by 2030; the new bill calling for zero carbon utilities definitely kicks it up a notch.

Meeting that new goal might not come easy. But in its effort to develop its renewable energy portfolio, California may just prove that it doesn’t need the president’s support to keep ever-greater amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California. 

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