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California embraces renewables despite resistance from White House

Amid a national effort to revive coal, the Golden State is looking elsewhere.

Luminalt solar installers Pam Quan (L) and Walter Morales (R) install solar panels on the roof of a home on May 9, 2018 in San Francisco, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Luminalt solar installers Pam Quan (L) and Walter Morales (R) install solar panels on the roof of a home on May 9, 2018 in San Francisco, California. CREDIT: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A rough summer in California marred by raging wildfires and blistering drought has offered a silver lining — the state’s solar energy production is so staggering that it may take a break next month in order to relieve its lines.

That success story comes in the midst of a nationwide effort to bolster fossil fuels at the expense of renewables, something President Donald Trump has pushed repeatedly.

Beginning next month, California may halt the construction of new renewable energy plants for a period of time, as production far exceeds the state’s current needs. This summer, the state has been sending electricity to Arizona and other states, sometimes at a cost to California itself, in an effort to ease its own solar lines amid an overabundance of sunshine.

The pause won’t be a permanent move, but it will give the state time to pace itself. Eight years ago, California generated less than 1 percent of its electricity through solar technology specifically — a number that is now closer to 10 percent.

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That growth is projected to continue, keeping the state on track to meet its goal of 50 percent renewable energy across California by 2030. Currently, renewables more broadly account for 27 percent of the state’s energy usage, with that total driven by a combination of solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal power.

California’s renewable gold rush could translate into law very quickly. Senate Bill 100, or the 100 Percent Clean Energy Act, would see the state shift to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Some experts argue the measure would be common sense in the Golden State, creating a sea of new jobs while making energy cheaper and far more sustainable.

Other proposals would go even farther than SB 100. One effort introduced on Thursday, AB 893, would force utilities to buy around 2,500 megawatts of both wind and solar power over the course of the next four years. Supporters of the measure say it would pave the way for SB 100, with the latter a long-term clean energy goal and the newer bill a necessary supplement meant to galvanize near-term action.

“California has the right climate goals — but it can’t meet them if we don’t act now,” warns a website message from the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), which is backing AB 893.

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That proposal has earned pushback from some lawmakers, however, as well as local residents worried about electricity costs rising, and from fossil fuel interests, like Shell Energy North America. But the prevalence of such legislation reinforces Californian interest in pivoting away from fossil fuels, as well as a commitment to nurturing the state’s booming renewables sector.

Those efforts stand in direct contrast to federal trends. Trump has sought to revitalize coal, working to bail out the dying industry at the expense of renewables, which the president has criticized.

That approach has accelerated in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the White House rolled out an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposal, the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, part of an effort to scale back the Obama-era Clean Power Plan (CPP). Under ACE, states will have greater authority to regulate how they reduce greenhouse gases, a measure environmental groups have said will benefit coal companies at the expense of the environment.

The proposal comes only two weeks after the Trump administration formally proposed to freeze federal fuel economy standards at 2020 levels. That move would revoke a waiver allowing California to set its own standards, in what many have seen as a direct attack on the state. Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, immediately said the state would sue, continuing a long-standing war between Trump and the state, particularly on environmental issues.

That tense relationship isn’t changing realities on the ground in California, where even local school districts are offering energy lessons and solar projects. But as the state forges ahead, clashes with the Trump administration aren’t going away. Most recently, the president has blamed the state’s devastating wildfires on its water policies, a trend echoed by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who also blamed the fires on California’s trees. The Trump administration is now reportedly eyeing a large-scale effort targeting California’s water control.