Unified grid remains out of West’s reach

Source: Debra Kahn, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, September 5, 2018

California lawmakers ended their legislative session last week without taking action on a bill to create a West-wide electricity market.

The bill, A.B. 813, would have begun the process of transforming California’s grid operator into a regional transmission organization. Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins (D) shelved the proposal on the last day of the session.

“We will continue this important discussion next year,” Atkins tweeted Friday night.

It’s the second year that California lawmakers have balked at creating a regional electricity market. The prospect of a Western RTO has long tantalized utilities and regulators for its potential to encourage wind and solar development in California’s neighboring coal-heavy states. Many mainstream environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists, were also on board.

But the Sierra Club, Food & Water Watch and others raised the possibility that regionalization would instead open up California’s grid to dirtier energy from neighboring states, as well as possible interference from President Trump’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Labor unions also lobbied against the bill for its potential to send power plant construction jobs out of state (Climatewire, Aug. 9).

Last year’s negotiations similarly faltered at the end of the session. But last year, the regionalization bill got tangled up with a proposal to raise the state’s renewable portfolio standard, bringing down both pieces of legislation.

This year, lawmakers kept discussions separate. That enabled them to pass the renewables bill, S.B. 100, which raises the RPS to 60 percent by 2030 and sets a 100 percent “zero-carbon” standard for 2045 (Greenwire, Aug. 29).

“Handing over control of the California energy grid, especially right after the Legislature passes S.B. 100, passing 813 would’ve jeopardized the RPS,” said Adam Scow, California director at Food & Water Watch. “It would’ve allowed the states and the feds to take a shot at the RPS. It was kind of a no-brainer.”

This was the last chance for the proposal under Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who has been a supporter of regionalization but is termed out at the end of the year. It’s not clear whether his likely successor, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), will be as enthusiastic.

But Ralph Cavanagh, the co-director of NRDC’s energy program, pointed to some reasons for optimism next year.

“Labor was not monolithic in opposition this year, with the key Coalition of [California] Utility Employees taking a neutral position,” he said in an email. “And of course the need for enhanced grid integration will only grow as the clean energy transition continues.”