California bill to establish ‘carbon-free’ grid advances

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News reporter • Posted: Saturday, July 7, 2018

A bill to increase California’s renewable portfolio standard is advancing in the state Legislature against the backdrop of President Trump and his efforts to reverse federal climate policies.

S.B. 100, by state Sen. Kevin de León (D), would increase the Golden State’s renewable portfolio standard to 60 percent by 2030, up from 50 percent currently, with an additional target of 100 percent “zero-carbon” electricity by 2045.

The bill passed the Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee 8-4 along party lines Tuesday and is headed for a vote on the Assembly floor in August, following a monthlong summer recess that begins tomorrow.

It would make California the second state, after Hawaii, to set a target of 100 percent clean energy. The term “zero-carbon” is undefined; lawmakers intend it to encompass more than the dozen types of renewable resources that are currently eligible for the RPS.

“I want to provide flexibilities for technologies that are on the horizon,” de León said, citing carbon capture and sequestration and nuclear power as potential options. (California is currently in the process of shuttering its last nuclear plant, and state law prohibits opening new plants without a permanent waste disposal solution in place.)

The state’s large investor-owned utilities have had no problems meeting existing renewables targets, which lawmakers have been steadily accelerating for years. But they are opposing the bill because, they argue, they are facing a panoply of challenges, including increased costs related to wildfires and the departure of many of their electricity customers for municipally run suppliers known as community choice aggregators.

“PG&E feels that we should take a moment to pause and reconcile these policy uncertainties before we can move forward,” said Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s manager of state government relations, Valerie Turrella Vlahos.

Lawmakers argued that the threat of climate change necessitates the clean energy push. “I believe this is a bold and necessary step to save our planet,” said Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi (D).

‘Weirdness’ elsewhere in session

Supporters are hoping S.B. 100 will stay clear of another bill aimed at increasing renewable generation across the West. A.B. 813, which has been speeding through committees, is more controversial for its focus on neighboring states.

It would begin the process of turning the state’s electricity grid operator into a regional transmission organization, a long-standing goal of Gov. Jerry Brown (D). Environmental groups are split on its potential to open up California’s grid to dirtier energy from neighboring states, as well as possible interference from Trump’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Energywire, June 27).

“I don’t think any of us wants to make the link between this and regionalization,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California, which opposes the regionalization bill for its potential to increase coal-fired generation in the short term, as a 2016 study by the California Independent System Operator found.

Both bills failed to advance in the Legislature last year due to disagreements between labor unions and renewables advocates (Energywire, Sept. 21, 2017).

“I’m not seeing the potential for that to happen again,” said Ralph Cavanagh, senior attorney and co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy program. He argued that a regional grid would help California incorporate renewables more efficiently by avoiding the need to curtail excess solar, as the state is already having to do on some days. But he also said regionalization isn’t necessary to achieve the goals of S.B. 100.

“It’s not essential,” he said. “We think it would be less costly and, in a whole host of ways, more straightforward to do it.”

Others are more inclined to draw a link between the bills, particularly those who want to ensure a role for specific, localized renewable resources like geothermal and hydroelectric power. “I don’t think it works unless we have a robust conversation about regionalization,” Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D) said at Tuesday’s hearing on S.B. 100.

Some of that conversation is taking place behind the scenes. Another version of S.B. 100 language currently in circulation would replace an explicit ban on out-of-state increases in emissions with a softer instruction to avoid those emissions “to the extent feasible.”

“The language essentially admits they’re anticipating a pollution increase from a regional grid,” Phillips said.

Other moving pieces include an upcoming proposal from the California Public Utilities Commission, expected to be released sometime this month. It would revise the amount that municipal electricity suppliers have to compensate utilities for the stranded costs the utilities incurred on behalf of departing customers.

And Brown and legislative leaders also announced plans this week to deal with utilities’ costs related to wildfire damages. PG&E has been pushing lawmakers to protect it from massive potential liabilities from last year’s wildfires by reforming the state’s legal doctrine of “inverse condemnation,” which requires not only the government but public and private utilities to pay for the taking of private property (Energywire, June 15).

That conversation is sucking air out of other negotiations and making outcomes less predictable, Phillips said.

“What we’re seeing this year is sort of a weirdness associated with all the energy bills that’s affected by how do you deal with wildfires and the utilities,” she said.