California just passed one of the most aggressive climate bills in history, making it the first large economy to mandate carbon-free electricity by 2045.
The bill that Governor Jerry Brown signed into law, SB 100, requires the state to reach 100 percent clean electricity in less than 30 years, with interim goals along the way, including 60 percent by 2030.
Yet, Governor Brown took an even bolder step, not only signing the legislation but also issuing an executive order calling on the entire economy to become carbon neutral by 2045, not just utilities generating electricity.
Electricity only makes up about 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions, so the executive order would target a whole host of other sectors, including building, heating, industry, not to mention transportation. It’s astounding in its ambition, and there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, including the lack of a detailed plan and the fact that as an executive order it is vulnerable to change from future governors.
Still, taken together, the SB 100 legislation and the executive order sent a powerful message. “SB 100 sends a clear signal to folks in laboratories, folks in board rooms to have the security of knowing that the fifth-largest economy in the world is moving toward clean energy,” Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D-San Diego) said, according to the LA Times.
The roadmap to actually achieve these ambitious goals necessitates follow up legislation in the relatively near future.
Nevertheless, the 100 percent clean electricity target alone will have a transformative effect, and not just on California, but perhaps the rest of the country and beyond. The massive volumes of renewable energy and energy storage that will be required to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electricity will accelerate cost declines of the various technologies involved, including solar, wind and batteries.
The scaling up of renewable energy deployment will also continuously chip away at the soft costsinvolved: sales, financing, administration, permitting and installation. As the cost of manufacturing solar panels, for instance, have fallen dramatically, these soft costs have remained as a much larger share of the overall cost picture.
One of the challenges will be how to integrate renewables and energy storage at such high levels, which presents problems for grid operators. Already, California sees depressed electricity prices at midday when large volumes of solar are generating electricity. Batteries will have to play a major role, but as of now, energy storage is still in its early stages.
One of Governor Brown’s ideas was to link California’s electricity grid with that of other Western states, a proposal that has been controversial and does not divide along familiar political factions. Some environmentalists support the idea, arguing it would help drive down the cost of renewable energy and allow for much greater portions of clean energy to be integrated into the grid, including coordination on long distance transmission lines. Others argue it would give more power to coal states in the West as well as the federal government, at the expense of California. The plan did not garner enough support this time around, but ultimately, many argue it might be necessary in the years ahead.
Getting to 100 percent clean electricity, in the end, will require eliminating a lot of natural gas from the state’s electricity mix.
If integrating renewables to achieve 100 percent carbon-free power is a tough nut to crack, zeroing out emissions in the transportation sector is another problem entirely. But while reasonable people can argue over how realistic it is to eliminate gasoline and diesel from the transportation sector, a lot of disruption will occur well before that point. As the Carbon Tracker Initiative noted in a recent report, the havoc for incumbent technologies starts growing quickly as the peak approaches, which, as it happens, occurs early on in the transition phase. Peak oil demand, for instance, may occur when alternatives gain just 5 to 10 percent of the market.
As BNEF and Bloomberg point out, inflection points come on suddenly, and adoption accelerates at an increasing rate. This echoes the conclusion from the Carbon Tracker report, which argued that renewable energy and EV adoption will follow “s-curves,” which is to say, a period of slow growth that suddenly gives way to explosive growth.
In the first half of this year, hybrid and fully electric vehicles captured more than 10 percent of total sales in California, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. EVs accounted for 6 percent of sales. California has a long road ahead, but it is on its way.