by Julia Pyper
February 16, 2018

California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León hasn’t given up on achieving a 100 percent renewable electricity system. If anything, President Trump’s support for the fossil fuel industry and de León’s bid for a Senate seat in Washington, D.C. have strengthened his resolve to pass ambitious clean energy legislation in the coming months.

At the end of last year’s legislative session, plans to create a 100 percent renewable grid in California by 2045 fell flat. Senate President Pro Tem de León sponsored the bill, SB 100, which made it through the State Senate and the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Energy. But the bill never officially made it to a full assembly vote.

Pasadena Democrat Chris Holden, who chairs the utilities and energy committee, said he refused to advance the bill because it didn’t have enough support to pass the chamber. California’s investor-owned utilities and unions opposed the bill and worked to kill it in the final weeks.

But de León isn’t giving up.

Getting to “100 percent clean energy is achievable, there’s no question about it,” he said at an event last week at the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator.

There’s a strong political impetus for California to take bold action on clean energy legislation this year. For one thing, it’s Governor Jerry Brown’s final year in office, which will culminate with the Global Climate Action Summit in September 2018. Speakers at last week's event noted that if California can’t pass SB 100 by the summit, it could dampen the momentum in the broader climate movement.

A political win on clean energy legislation would also bolster de León as he seeks to claim the seat of fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein in the U.S. Senate. Earlier this week, de Leon received a meaningful boost by winning the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union because of his progressive policies on minimum wage, immigration and environmental justice.

De León is well behind 83-year-old Feinstein, a five-term senator, on fundraising. But his strong stance on progressive issues and relative outsider status make him a serious contender.

Plus, clean energy is part of broader economic development platform that stands in opposition to President Trump's.

“The world is watching very closely what California does, especially with the political climate of Washington, D.C.,” said de León.

“We have a president that is serving on a silver platter to the Republic of China the global leadership mantle when it comes to...clean energy,” he said. “I think the Chinese are more than happy to assume that leadership role.”

With that technology leadership comes economic growth, jobs, less pollution and a carbon-free grid. And yet, in the U.S., “We have very strong political interests...trying to undermine 100 percent clean energy, because if it happens in a state like California then it means it can happen in other states -- even red states.”

Getting to 100 percent

California’s investor-owned utilities reported last year they’ve already met or are on the brink of hitting their 33 percent renewable energy target for 2020, and could hit the 50 percent target for 2030 (which de León championed in the legislature) a full decade ahead of schedule.

“When you send the right market signals, [you can] attract the...capital that’s vital to create the technologies that are necessary to meet our very ambitious greenhouse-gas reduction goals,” he said.

“We’re sending a message, not just here in California, but to the nation and to the world, that with or without Washington, California is moving fast forward with our clean energy goals,” said de León.

All SB 100 needs now is to be put to a floor vote in the State Assembly, said de León. If it gets back to the Senate, “We will pass it easily and get it to the governor’s desk,” he said.

Hawaii became the first state to pass a 100 percent renewable energy goal in 2015, and it is making strides toward reaching that goal. But while Hawaii’s target is laudable, a 100 percent renewable energy goal in a state the size of California, with a population of 40 million and an economy larger than those of most countries, would take the endeavor to a different level.

“If we do it, it means other nation-states throughout the world can accomplish 100 percent clean energy and it’s within reach,” de León said.

The nitty-gritty

While this optimistic outlook is likely to resonate with climate and clean energy advocates, it overlooks the challenges around meeting 100 percent renewable electricity.

First of all, SB 100 isn’t really aiming for 100 percent renewable energy. After getting pushback from utilities and labor groups, the bill moves up the target to achieve 50 percent renewable energy resources to December 31, 2026, and establishes a target to achieve 60 percent renewables by December 31, 2030.

Rather than mandate a 100 percent renewable energy target, the bill directs state regulators to chart a pathway for 100 percent of total retail electricity sales in California to come from renewable energy and “zero-carbon resources” by December 31, 2045.

Not only is the goal weaker than it seems, but California’s utilities might not be as close to reaching it as it may appear. As I explained in a previous State Bulletin, the three major investor-owned utilities “have made so much progress toward their goals because 1) they rushed to take advantage of federal tax credits for solar and wind before those expire; 2) the utilities procured renewables assuming a certain level of retail load that has failed to materialize or that they are no longer responsible for serving; and 3) this has generated a surplus of renewable energy credits (RECs) above RPS requirements for the past several years.” Because these surplus RECs can be banked for use in future years, the utilities don’t even have to procure much, if any, more renewable energy to meet their requirements through 2030.

The second point above, related to retail load, is also a particularly thorny issue as the state grapples with the rise of community-choice aggregators and how to procure electricity going forward. 

Then there’s the issue of regionalizing the California grid, which many stakeholders feel is essential if the state if going to reach 100 percent renewable electricity. A bill that would have reformed the grid into a regional entity failed along with SB 100 last fall.

When I asked de León about the regionalization issue last week, he joked that we could “be here for a while.”

“I don’t oppose regionalization,” he said. “But if we do regionalization, it has to be done in the right way, given that we have other states that perhaps don’t believe in clean energy goals like California.”

Opponents fear expanding the grid footprint will give neighboring Western states with coal-heavy portfolios more control over California’s energy mix. Also, while CAISO has always been subject to the jurisdiction of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, opponents have voiced concerns that FERC may be more inclined to intervene in California’s policies and activities if the grid becomes multi-state. 

Given that four of the five current FERC commissioners are Trump appointees, “I would be loath to undermine our governance process in California with the current administration,” de León said.

With respect to the 100 percent target, “I will acknowledge, technology-wise, the last 10 to 20 percent will be a little more challenging,” he said.

When it comes to determining what resources count toward the target, “I’m always open to flexibility,” he added -- as long as the "electrons are clean."