California passes "the most important climate law in US history" to beat the IPCC target

Topaz: the largest solar farm in the world

Topaz: the largest solar farm in the world

For many of us, 2018 will be remembered as the year of the IPCC report on climate change: a moment that reframed our futures indelibly. To put their findings starkly, we only have 12 years to contain global warming to 1.5 degress or we will no longer be able to steer away from the imminent extinction of our human species.

From now on, all our efforts to build better political structures and cultures would be put to the service of achieving the targets set out by that report. Not as the singular target, but as the outcome around which other targets must be set.

Even so, we hear many people talk about having twelve years to put the new structures in place that might give more people agency to take meaningful action themselves. Whereas, practically speaking, to meet those targets we would need to put them in place over the next three years – or sooner – to be getting results by ten. And 2019 – this year -would be the year to identify those structures and begin to prototype them. 

Rather than start from scratch in every region around the globe, the fastest way will be to identify good practice and adapt prototypes from others. The Daily Alternative serves to help that process, reporting on whatever is working. And also, to generate enthusiasm amongst those who are experimenting and iterating, knowing they are not alone.

So we’re happy to share MIT’s report that the State of California has just passed a bill requiring 100 percent of the state’s electricity to come from carbon-free sources by the end of 2045, 5 years earlier than the IPCC required. Here’s how the story first appeared on Medium:

“Given the size of California’s economy and the bill’s ambitions, it’s “the most important climate law in US history,” says Danny Cullenward, an energy economist and lawyer at the Carnegie Institution for Science.We are showing that you can operate a grid with high levels of intermittent renewables,” he says. “That’s something that can be exported to the rest of the world.

Reaching 50 percent

The new California bill, known as SB100, will still need to go back to the Senate to approve changes made since it passed there with a comfortable margin last year, but that’s not expected to be a hurdle.

The measure also moves up the state’s earlier time line to reach 50 percent renewables, from 2030 to 2026. Notably, however, California regulators have said the state’s major utilities could reach that milestone as early as 2020, underscoring the rapid pace at which the energy transformation has unfolded since the state first put its renewable standards in place in 2002. (In fact, California would already be well beyond the 50 percent threshold if the state’s legal definition included carbon-free electricity sources like nuclear power and large hydroelectric plants.)

Borenstein says the state hasn’t always picked the most cost-effective paths, noting that customers are still paying inflated rates as a result of some excessively high early wind and solar contracts. But crucially, the rapid transformation occurred without wrecking California’s flourishing economy. The state’s gross domestic product climbed by $127 billion last year, making it the world’s fifth-largest economy.

Solving the second half

Many energy researchers believe the second half of California’s clean-energy puzzle will be considerably more difficult, and expensive, to solve than the first.

Back in 2002, California got off the starting block with a fair amount of existing wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass, and solar thermal power. From this point forward, every additional percentage point of clean power needs to be built from scratch. In addition, the state plans to close its last nuclear plant in the coming years, eliminating a carbon-free source that provides about 10 percent of the state’s electricity.

But perhaps the thorniest challenge is that the output of renewable sources like wind and solar vary greatly by the day and season. As renewables come to represent a larger portion of the state’s total electricity generation, managing that intermittency could become increasingly costly and complex.

“The amount of effort to achieve the last 20 percent might well be as much as it took the reach the first 80,” Jane Long, a former associate director at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and energy researcher who has closely studied the mix of technologies that could be required to meet California’s emissions goals, said in an email.

Among other things, it could require expensive investments in energy storage, politically tricky expansions of transmission infrastructure, or greater reliance on controversial carbon-free sources like advanced nuclear, or fossil-fuel plants coupled with carbon-capture technology (see “The $2.5 trillion reason we can’t rely on batteries to clean up the grid”).

Added flexibility

A crucial nuance of the California bill is that it employs a wider definition of clean-energy sources than the state’s earlier rules, using the language “zero-carbon resources” rather than “renewables,” which means it could include those technologies or others that may emerge in the years ahead.

Long says that flexibility will be key to achieving the state’s goals. It’s also likely to require additional technological innovation, potentially including the development of storage technology that can work on a seasonal basis and affordable means of producing carbon-neutral fuels, she adds.

Some are more optimistic. Daniel Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, argues that it won’t be increasingly challenging to reach California’s next set of goals. Among other things, he believes we’re sure to see the necessary energy storage advances in the years to come and says the state has yet to harvest other “low-hanging fruit,” like using electric vehicles as a form of distributed storage.

Moreover, Kammen says we’ll see a pronounced shift toward the “low-carbon lifestyles” embraced by younger citizens in the next few decades, as the state increasingly plans cities around dense housing and public transit rather than single-family homes and cars.