California lawmakers pass 50% renewable energy standard and efficiency package

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, September 15, 2015

California lawmakers passed a bill last week that moves the state further along its low-carbon path, although not as far as Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and legislative leaders would have liked.

The state Assembly voted Friday night, on the last day of the legislative session, to approve S.B. 350, which mandates a 50 percent renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS) and a doubling of efficiency in existing buildings by 2030.

The vote was the result of negotiations that dropped the most controversial portion of the bill: a requirement to reduce petroleum consumption 50 percent by 2030, which oil companies successfully mobilized lawmakers against (ClimateWire, Sept. 10).

The bill is expected to be signed by Brown, who participated in the negotiations and stood alongside state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D) on Wednesday to announce that the petroleum piece would be taken out.

“Taking carbon out of the modern economy requires heroic efforts and tireless struggle. SB 350, in both efficiency and renewable energy, ratchets up the California commitment,” Brown said in a statement after the bill was approved Friday. “We have the technological means and now we have the legal mandate to reduce carbon pollution.”

S.B. 350 passed with a comfortable margin of 52-26, with two Republicans crossing the party line to cast votes in favor and one Democrat — Assemblymember Adam Gray, from Modesto — voting against.

Concerns about high energy prices

Friday’s floor vote also highlighted long-standing regional differences within the state that often surface during environmental policy debates. Several Republicans cited a Manhattan Institute report from July that found the state’s existing renewable energy policies and greenhouse gas programs have raised energy prices, particularly for inland and Central Valley regions that have high summer temperatures.

Lawmakers primarily fought over the effects of the policies on the poor.

“You and I, we might be able to afford a $50 increase in our utility bill,” said Assemblymember Shannon Grove (R), who represents Bakersfield and other parts of rural, oil-rich Kern County. “Halle Berry can afford this policy, but people in my district … they can’t afford these policies.” Democrats enlisted the actress last month to meet with lawmakers who were wary of the bill.

Democrats representing urban areas argued that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would also cut conventional pollutants that cause asthma and other health issues, reducing residents’ medical bills. “Has our policy in the past been perfect for our disadvantaged communities?” said Assemblymember Cristina Garcia (D), who represents a majority-Latino area of southeast Los Angeles County. “No. That does not mean we abandon this.”

Partial boost for solar power

“The challenge we all have to have in front of ourselves is the prosperity created in this state needs to be broadly shared,” said Assemblymember David Hadley, a Republican from Los Angeles County who voted for the bill despite “serious reservations.”

“An approach that results in whole industries and whole regions of this state being mired in poverty and bankrupted is not an approach the rest of the world will follow,” he said.

State agencies signaled that they would move forward without the legislative backing of S.B. 32, a bill that would have enshrined the state’s greenhouse gas goals for 2030 and 2050 — currently set only by gubernatorial executive order. Sen. Fran Pavley (D) shelved the bill last week due to opposition from fellow Democrats.

The California Air Resources Board and six other agencies announced a workshop Oct. 1 on ways to meet Brown’s April order of a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas levels by 2030.

And while S.B. 350 ultimately was written to exclude rooftop solar installations from qualifying for the renewable portfolio standard alongside large-scale renewables, another bill headed to Brown’s desk would give rooftop systems a significant boost while building support for the state’s cap-and-trade program. A.B. 693, by Assemblymember Susan Eggman (D), would authorize as much as $1 billion over 10 years to install panels on low-income rental housing. The money would come from cap-and-trade revenues.

“Solar power should be enjoyed by everyone in California, not just the wealthiest among us,” said Eggman, who represents a northwest region of the Central Valley. “This bill puts solar in the hands of those who most need the financial savings, creating a more equitable and inclusive clean energy future.”