California Ups Its Clean Energy Game With 100% Zero-Carbon Electricity Vote

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Above Photo: Hawaii already has a 100 percent renewable power goal, but California is the fifth-largest economy in the world and would be the most populous state to require its electricity be carbon-free. Credit: Lee Celano/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a bold move in a state that’s already seeing the devastation that comes with climate change, including heat waves, droughts, wildfires and sea level rise.


Updated Aug. 29 with state Senate vote.

In a move to solidify California’s role as a world leader on climate action, state lawmakers voted this week to shift their state—the world’s fifth-largest economy—to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045.

The legislation now heads to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature. Brown hasn’t commented on it but is widely expected to sign the legislation as one of the crowning environmental achievements of his administration, which ends in January. The renewable energy commitment also comes on the cusp of a Global Climate Action Summit that Brown is hosting in San Francisco beginning Sept.12.

In a summer when California has been fighting record wildfires while facing off against the Trump administration’s attempts to rollback climate policies, the state’s Democratic-controlled legislature sought to double down on its commitment to shift away from fossil fuels.

“After a grueling year it has finally passed,” tweeted state Sen. Kevin de León, the Los Angeles Democrat who sponsored the measure. De León, who is challenging fellow Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein for her U.S. Senate seat in November, was in the Assembly chamber on Tuesday to help round up the final votes needed for passage. The Senate approved the amendments on Wednesday and sent the legislation to the governor.

“Our state will remain a climate change leader,” de León said.

California already has one of the strongest clean energy mandates in the country, with a commitment to obtain 50 percent of its electricity from wind, solar and geothermal power by 2030. The legislation would increase that 2030 commitment to 60 percent, on the way to fully carbon-free electricity by 2045.

The state currently gets 29 percent of its power from renewables and 24 percent from hydropower and nuclear. A decade ago, only 11 percent of its power came from renewable energy.

The stakes are high as global temperatures rise. California’s geography and long coastline put it in the path of some of the worst impacts of climate change, and a comprehensive climate assessment published earlier by the state this week projects that wildfire, drought, heat waves and floods will grow more frequent and severe.

What Would 100% Zero-Carbon Power Mean?

California would not be the first state to commit to carbon-free electricity; Hawaii set a 100 percent renewable energy goal in 2015. But as the most populous state and the fifth-largest economy in the world, California’s decision would be a landmark in the global effort to drive down carbon emissions.

“While Trump is taking the nation backwards by deregulating and subsidizing the coal, oil, and natural gas industries in D.C., California is rolling up its sleeves to build bold climate protections,” said Paul Cort, an attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice who led the California Right to Zero campaign.

“Victory for humankind and science-based 100 percent roadmaps,” tweeted Stanford University professor Mark Jacobson, who has published studies on the feasibility of a global transition to all-renewable electricity.

As the bill made its way through the Legislature, Jacobson and his colleagues faced off against conservative critics like Robert Bryce of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Studies, who warned in a Los Angeles Times editorial that the legislation would “require wrecking vast onshore and offshore territories with forests of wind turbines and sprawling solar projects.” The Manhattan Institute has in the past received funding from the petrochemical billionaire Koch brothers and Exxon Foundation.

The carbon-free electricity commitment will also help California meet its ambitious goals of putting 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on its roads by 2025, and 5 million by 2030. Currently, even though California leads the nation in electric cars, those vehicles still draw power from a grid that gets 34 percent of its electricity from natural gas, its largest source, and 4 percent from coal. As recently as 2008, California obtained 46 percent of its power from natural gas and 11 percent from coal.

Leading Climate Charge as Trump Backpedals

The move to ramp up California’s climate commitment comes as President Donald Trump’s administration is pushing in the opposite direction.

In recent weeks, the Trump administration has proposed ending state obligations to decarbonize electricity under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan and weakening fuel economy standards while revoking California’s long-standing authority to establish its own greenhouse gas emissions standards and zero-emissions vehicle program.

The state is bracing to fight the Trump administration in the courts. Meanwhile, lawmakers in Sacramento are doing their part to push back on Trump’s fossil-fuel-friendly agenda. In May, they approved legislation to require all new homes built in the state to have solar power. The state Senate is also considering a measure, already passed by the Assembly, that would trammel Trump’s offshore oil drilling plans by banning construction of any new pipelines in state waters out to three miles offshore.

“California keeps proving we know to invent a future few could even imagine,” former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a letter urging lawmakers to pass the 100 percent carbon-free electricity legislation.

Former Vice President Al Gore also weighed in with his endorsement.“While our federal leadership is failing to act to solve the climate crisis,” he said in a letter, “it is imperative that California continue its world-renowned efforts to reduce global warming pollution and provide a blueprint for other states and nations on how to address climate change while continuing to grow your economy.”