Move state green power mandate to 90%, and technology will follow, advocates say

Source: Anne C. Mulkern, E&E reporter • Posted: Wednesday, August 7, 2013

SAN DIEGO — California needs to set more aggressive targets for renewable energy, aiming to mandate as much as 90 percent of power by 2050, community advocates said here yesterday. A state official, however, said it’s not feasible.

Members of a committee representing low-income and minority populations, which is advising the California Air Resources Board as it plans future moves, raised the issue when asking how soon the state will cut fossil fuel-derived electricity generation.

California needs to double its power production by 2050 while at the same time cutting greenhouse gas emissions to about 5 percent of 1990 levels, according to a 2008 study, said Tom Frantz, with the Association of Irritated Residents, a group in the state’s Central Valley. That means making about 90 percent of power from green sources, he said.

“I thought it was figured out five years ago,” Frantz said. “Has something changed, or when will you know for 2050, so that we can stop permitting fossil fuel plants, that it’s just an automatic thing we’re not going to do any longer because we can’t possibly meet our 2050 goals?” As a power plant lasts for years, he said, “it seems like we should have been looking at this already.”

Power made with 90 percent renewables is just one possible pathway forward, responded Mike Tollstrup, chief of ARB’s project assessment branch. Other research has suggested nuclear power or natural gas with carbon capture and sequestration as answers.

“We don’t have a silver bullet at this point,” Tollstrup said. “Is 90 percent renewables feasible now? Probably not. We need to have resources in the basin that support the grid, keep it going.”

“A lot of it is the lack of technology,” Tollstrup added. “We don’t have the technology.”

That triggered a debate with committee members including Nicole Capretz, of San Diego-based Environmental Health Coalition.

“I’m going to strenuously object to the idea that we don’t have technology,” Capretz said. “We don’t have the system in place to support the existing technology, but that’s a different statement. Our grid doesn’t enable us to develop the kind of micro-grid system, but the potential and the technology is there.”

Driving technology developmen

The issue came up as ARB staff meet with the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, which is advising the agency as it develops an update to its scoping plan. The revisions will establish ARB’s climate change priorities for the next five years and are intended to lay the groundwork for reaching the state’s post-2020 goals. Those include by 2050 shrinking greenhouse gas reductions to 80 percent below 1990 levels.

There have been tensions in the past between ARB and the Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, which felt that some of its positions were disregarded when ARB adopted its carbon cap-and-trade program. Some in the group believe that the market-based system gives companies ways to avoid shrinking pollution at the source. Many power plants are located in low-income communities.

The committee yesterday and today is developing recommendations it will give to ARB on the scoping plan. Although those won’t be completed until today, the issue of the higher renewables standard is likely to appear on the list. California currently requires that by 2020, utilities make one-third of power from green sources.

Although a 90 percent mandate might seem ambitious, Capretz said, the state needs to set goals to drive technology development. “What I feel we could be doing, or how the agency could look at this, is from a ‘What are some of the objectives we want to achieve for our energy system?’” she said. “I feel that lends itself to the right pathway.”

The objectives could be eliminating fossil fuels, she said, enabling the grid to be safe and secure, and making sure that there is an equal distribution of benefits in all communities.

“If you set those objectives, the end goal, the path becomes a lot clearer,” Capretz said. “Then we figure out what are the barriers to that path.”

There will need to be a shift in the business model, she added. “There’s no getting around that. But that’s different than we can’t even figure out the path.”

There are political obstacles, as well, she said in an interview.

“It’s a massive challenge because the fossil fuel industry is not going to go away without a knockdown, drag-out fight,” Capretz said. “There’s billions of dollars on the line.”

Integrating technologies

Technologies to increase renewable power exist but don’t always work together, said Kevin Hamilton with Clinica Sierra Vista in the Central Valley. Some have been generated through different policy regulation, he said, such as the development of hydrogen-fueled cars.

“Then they sit there because there wasn’t any infrastructure available on the scale that we needed,” Hamilton said. “You say that we don’t have the technology, that there are barriers getting to a fossil fuel-free 2050,” he said to ARB’s Tollstrup. “I would like you to specifically identify them.

“What’s the intradepartmental plan to sequence this appropriately?” Hamilton asked. “Right now, as I read the [state] Department of Energy plan for 2012, I see natural gas, natural gas, natural gas.”

He asked Tollstrup whether the state has “smart systems” that move energy to where it is needed, “assuming we want to get to 90 percent renewables by 2050.”

Tollstrup repeated he didn’t think it was possible.

“I don’t think the technology is there,” Tollstrup said. “You still have to have extended capacity. You’re still have to have certain types of capacity within the basin.”

You can increase renewables, Tollstrup added, but “at what point can you get over without disrupting the system, I can’t answer that.”

Hamilton replied, “So you could raise it up? You’re just worried about disrupting the system?”

Tollstrup answered, “Right, yes.”

Disrupt the system?

Hamilton sees disruption as “a positive thing,” he said.

“The system as it’s standing has been far more disruptive to the communities that we’re representing,” Hamilton said. “The status quo needs to be disrupted at a certain point. Bring a little disruption on at a certain point here in order to bring change. I don’t want to crash the grid here, don’t get me wrong.”

Once the state identifies where it wants to go, Tollstrup said, then it can focus on where to distribute incentives. Until you have those discussions, he said, “everybody is just going to spin.”

Hamilton said that made him feel as though the committee was “building a scoping plan for a plan that doesn’t really exist.” Different groups at the state level have been mapping out an energy and climate road map for years, he said, and “you’re telling me that we haven’t settled on one.”

Planning for the years beyond 2020 is much different than several years ago when the state crafted its original scoping plan, Tollstrup said. In 2006 ARB had “a very specific target we had to hit by 2020,” he said, and had measures it knew “could get us there,” which then were adopted into regulation

But “2050, that’s a whole other ballgame,” Tollstrup said. “That’s a much harder target to hit. It’s not going to be as easy. We can’t throw a bunch of measures up there, because we don’t know what those are. It’s not that easy this time. It’s a much more difficult target.”