Wind and solar are no longer the goal. Now it’s no-carbon

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 13, 2018

California’s landmark clean energy legislation marks a turning point in state climate action, analysts say, refocusing the debate around emissions reduction and away from policies that boost wind and solar.

State climate policy has long prioritized renewable portfolio standards, which require utilities to buy increasing amounts of wind and solar power. And to be sure, the California measure signed into law this week has one of those. The law, known as S.B. 100, requires renewables to account for 60 percent of electricity sales in 2030, an increase from the previous standard of 50 percent.

It’s where the law goes next that marks the shift. The success of wind and solar has prompted a division in climate circles in recent years. Some argue that renewables can shoulder much of the burden in powering the grid. Others argue that deep carbon reductions are impossible without sources like hydro and nuclear.

The California law effectively ends that discussion.

“It sidesteps that religious debate,” said Bruce Nilles, a senior fellow at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank that supports a transition to clean energy. “The metric is clear: It’s got to be zero carbon.”

The law’s ultimate goal is 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2045. The shift beyond renewables comes post-2030, when resources like large-scale hydro and nuclear become eligible for meeting the state standard.

The move effectively leaves it to the market to decide the best way to achieve carbon reductions, analysts said, incentivizing development of nascent technology and providing increased flexibility for meeting California’s goals.

“It’s a shift from saying we know wind and solar are going to help us get to where we want to be, so we’re going to prescribe more wind and solar to a focus on our goal, which is to get zero carbon,” said Jesse Jenkins, who studies power markets at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “Our best strategy is to deliver a clear and ambitious goal and let the market help us get there.”

Other states may soon get in the mix.

Massachusetts already boasts a clean energy standard that provides credits for low-carbon electricity. And gubernatorial candidates in Colorado and Illinois are campaigning this year on pledges of 100 percent renewable energy, said J.R. Tolbert, vice president for state policy at Advanced Energy Economy, a green business group.

While states may take different pathways and employ different technologies to get there, a low-carbon power grid is increasingly the goal, he said.

“All of that is a sign of what normally happens: California sets the marker down, and other states follow,” Tolbert said. “I think this is something we could see, maybe not next year, but I think more and more states having a robust conversation about increasing the amount of green energy on their grid.”

Ultimately, the focus on technology may be the most significant element of the California legislation, said Severin Borenstein, director of the Energy Institute at the University of California, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

The Golden State accounts for 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But in encouraging the deployment of technology that limits emissions, California offers a pathway to other states and countries looking to decarbonize. That could lead to truly significant carbon reductions, he said.

“I don’t see the 2045 target as the economic threat to California or a guarantee we’re going to get there,” he said. “I think it is aspirational, and it’s an excellent aspiration, because this is the sort of technological push California should be pursuing.”

Today, the standard makes California something of an outlier — Hawaii is the only other state with a similar target in its 100 percent renewable mandate. That has prompted criticism in some corners that California is being overly ambitious.

But similar arguments were levied against the state when it established its landmark carbon cap-and-trade program in 2006, said Kirsten James, director of California policy at Ceres, a nonprofit that works with business to boost sustainability.

“The evidence shows that when California has been ambitious with targets for climate mitigation, we’ve risen to the challenge,” James said.