Is California Still on Track to Meet Its Goal of 100% Clean Power by 2045?


“California’s in this place where we don’t need new goals. We just need to implement like crazy,” Borgeson said.

James Bushnell, UC Davis energy economist: California is an incubator for climate ideas. As the state moves toward its goals, it can share lessons learned with other governments.

“The way I think about it is not in terms of make or break targets, but what we’re trying to do is rapidly expand zero-carbon energy and get a sense of what the implications and costs and challenges are,” Bushnell said.

The state’s progress in adding renewables to the grid in the last decade has been rapid, but currently, California is “bumping up against a bunch of different constraints” that may be transitory or signs that we’re “reaching a plateau where further reductions are just more difficult,” he said.

Ranjit Deshmukh, UC Santa Barbara environmental studies professor: California’s growth in clean energy is non-linear, and the state might have picked through the low-hanging fruit.

“As you get closer to that [100% clean energy] goal, it gets harder and harder to manage your system,” Deshmukh said, given the variability of wind and solar. “We have to introduce more energy storage to manage that variability and shift our generation to times when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. So the challenge is going to get harder and harder.”

Storage

A large outdoor battery-storage facility next to a power plant with a large smokestack.
Tesla Megapack batteries at the Elkhorn Battery Energy Storage System next to the Vistra Moss Landing natural gas-fired power plant in Moss Landing on California’s central coast. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Where we are now: The state’s ability to store energy through large-scale batteries has grown more than sevenfold in the past four years. The batteries can store enough energy to power 6.6 million homes for up to four hours and helped the state avert blackouts during a September 2022 10-day heat wave.

A charge showing the increase in California's energy storage resources between 2019 and 2023,What the experts are saying

NRDC’s Borgeson: Battery storage is one of the main resources needed to shut down fossil-fuel-powered plants, and storage must keep growing.

“The storage story has been really, really amazing,” Borgeson said.

UCSB’s Deshmukh: The costs of storage are dropping. “The question is how fast we put storage on the ground,” Deshmukh said.

If you install storage earlier, prices are higher, but adding the storage increases understanding of how to add storage and will help bring costs down. Ultimately, he said, we must remember that ratepayers will pay those costs.

UC Davis’ Bushnell: There is some resource competition, both in terms of materials and production capacity, as demand for electric-vehicle batteries and storage batteries both surge.

Electric vehicles

A white electric car getting charged.
An electric car charges at a mall parking lot on June 27, 2022, in Corte Madera, Marin County. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Where we are now: In 2018, 5% of California’s new vehicle sales were zero-emission vehicles. According to the state’s energy commission, that figure was 27% this month. California mandates that all new cars sold by 2035 be hybrid or electric.

“This is really indicative that EVs are going to win,” Hochschild of the state’s Energy Commission said. California’s current top-selling car is electric: a Tesla.

What the experts are saying

NRDC’s Borgeson: Californians are buoyed by the state goal to get off internal combustion vehicles. But, Borgeson said, “People are buying them because the cars are working for people in their daily lives.”

UC Berkeley’s Kammen: California’s 2035 goal is too lax.

“We should be moving that date forward, that looks way too conservative now. That number should be 2030. I would argue we could do it in 2028,” Kammen said.

UCSB’s Deshmukh: Increased EV sales will lead to emissions reductions. “But there’s evidence that people use EVs as their secondary vehicles, and they still keep gasoline cars for the long drives,” Deshmukh said.

As EVs get better and even more popular, California must keep pace by growing public-charging infrastructure. “If folks start thinking that public charging is going to be a constraint, vehicles won’t grow as quickly as we hope they would,” Deshmukh said.

Offshore wind

Wind turbines at sea.
Wind turbines generate electricity at the Block Island Wind Farm, the first commercial offshore wind farm in the United States, on July 7, 2022, near Block Island, Rhode Island. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Where we are now: California’s goals partly depend on producing 25 gigawatts of electricity by 2045 from offshore wind. That would be enough energy to power 25 million homes. Officials plan to install floating wind turbines in two locations: one off Humboldt Bay in Northern California and another near Morro Bay off the state’s central coast. The federal government auctioned off 583 square miles of ocean waters for the job.

What the experts are saying

UC Berkeley’s Kammen: “We’re way behind on building offshore wind,” Kammen said. He called the resource the “ultimate battery” because it is available when solar and onshore wind are often unavailable and can be used to make hydrogen, which can store energy later.

NRDC’s Borgeson: “The goals that the state has set are directionally right and very, very aggressive, appropriately so,” Borgeson said. “The state has been setting all the right signals for offshore wind to be viable in California.”

UCSB’s Deshmukh: “Offshore wind progress is always slow because just to get the industry off the ground requires a lot of effort and investment,” Deshmukh said. It requires building infrastructure like ports, specialized vessels and transmission lines.

Environmental justice

A man in a hard hat installs solar panels on the roof of a house.
Andrew Hayes, with Grid Alternatives, helps install solar panels on the roof of a home in a lower-income neighborhood in Vallejo, Solano County, on Feb. 13, 2018. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

Where we are now: California’s landmark environmental justice law, AB 617, is intended to clear up dirty air for Richmond, West Oakland and other industrial communities across the state, in part through the use of clean energy.

The law has been heralded by some as groundbreaking and derided by others as toothless. Experts say it’s unclear if it is working.

The state also has other initiatives, like those aimed at bringing EV charging to lower-income and disadvantaged communities.

However, many experts and advocates feel the state is failing to meet environmental justice goals.

What the experts are saying

UC Berkeley’s Kammen: The state should be installing solar and storage on affordable housing and co-locating transit hubs where people with lower-income live, he said. “We are way behind on environmental justice.”

UCSB’s Deshmukh: As California decarbonizes, we have to make sure disadvantaged and minority communities receive their fair share of benefits “whether they are health benefits from reduced air pollution by retiring fossil fuel plants, or receiving incentives for clean energy technologies, or the share of jobs in the clean energy technologies,” Deshmukh said.

The state must also work to make sure lower-income and minority communities are not unfairly burdened by increases in costs for both electricity or natural gas, especially as the state works to cut natural gas from our energy mix.

Electricity prices

A utility meter.
A PG&E electricity meter on a residential building in Berkeley on April 26, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Where we are now: Californians pay one of the highest retail electricity rates in the United States. That’s a problem for a state pushing people to go all-electric.

What the experts are saying

UC Davis’ Bushnell: “Electricity prices are extremely high in California,” Bushnell said, which puts a headwind in front of California’s momentum on everything from transportation to home electricity.

NRDC’s Borgeson: It’s much cheaper to power things with clean power than customers’ current rates. “This really, really, really vital price signal is currently, in my view, wrong,” she said. The state should be focusing on how to change this.

UCSB’s Deshmukh: How the state achieves clean electricity in a cost-effective way to ratepayers is crucial, especially given other considerations like conservation.

While solar farms in the desert may provide less expensive energy, they can hurt the plants and animals that live there. Putting solar panels on the built environment decreases this drawback but is more expensive.





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