California pushes forward on renewable power

By Kate Galbraith, CALmatters

At a Pacific Gas and Electric power plant east of San Francisco, greenhouse gases flow from a stack as the air shimmers from heat, with no dirty cloud of pollution in sight. In the distance, wind turbines spin slowly under a cloudy sky. Nearby, local schools are celebrating the addition of solar panels to their roofs and parking structures.

The state’s electric power sources are poised to get cleaner still. In 15 years, California’s electric utilities would need to get fully half their electricity from renewable sources, if SB 350, which is working its way through the Legislature, passes. The goal, called a renewable portfolio standard, can almost certainly be met, though it will require utilities to make behind-the-scenes adjustments as they juggle different types of energy. California’s plan, a piece of a broader strategy for battling climate change, is considerably more ambitious than most other states’ efforts.

California’s electricity providers have already made strong efforts to add solar and wind power, and have never used much coal — a big reason why the state will feel little impact from the new federal rule. Between 2000 and 2013, greenhouse gas emissions from the state’s electric sector fell considerably faster than emissions overall, largely because of renewable energy mandates, first enacted in 2002 and strengthened in 2008 in by then-Gov. Schwarzenegger’s executive order.

The order, which subsequently became law, requires utilities to get 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. However, not all forms of renewable energy get counted. Large hydropower projects are excluded. So are most rooftop solar panel installations, as opposed to the large solar arrays in the desert, which do count. That is a point of contention in the current bill, with utilities and solar installers arguing that rooftop systems also should count.

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