California Sets New Renewable Energy Goal

California-renewable energy-standardWhile the US federal government remains unable to pass any sweeping renewable energy policy, and even considers backtracking on environmental laws already on the books, California is proving just how reachable a clean energy future really is.  The most populous state in the country, California was one of the first states to pass a climate law and a standard that mandates major utilities generate a certain amount of their power from renewable sources.  Now the California legislature has passed a law committing the state to ramp up renewable energy even further over the next nine years.

California passed its first renewable energy standard in 2002 with Senate Bill 1078, a bill that required major utilities to generate 20% of their electricity from clean, renewable sources by 2017.  In 2003 the California Energy Commission recommended moving up the deadline for the 20% goal to the year 2010.  In 2006 Senate Bill 107 made the 2010 deadline official state policy.  Meanwhile state legislatures in other parts of the country began experimenting with renewable energy standards of their own.  Today around half the states in the US have some form of renewable energy standard for utilities, though none is quite as ambitious as California’s.

In 2010 California’s major utilities did not quite hit the goal of sourcing 20% of their energy from renewables.  However they came close enough for lawmakers and environmental groups to hail the renewable energy standard as a success, and for the legislature to set its sights on a still more ambitious policy for the future.  Last September California’s Air Resources Board decided on a goal of producing 33% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources by the year 2020.  This month the state legislature codified that goal into law. 

All that remains now is for California Governor Jerry Brown to sign the new standard into law.  Based on Brown’s past support for renewable energy and the pledges he made while running for office, he is expected to be supportive.  Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was also a proponent of California’s renewable energy laws, praising clean energy’s ability to create jobs even while his Republican colleagues stymied progress at the national level.  California is one of the few places in the country where prominent Republican politicians have joined hands with Democrats in support of a clean energy future. 

So how close did utilities actually come to meeting California’s goal for 2010?  Last year the three largest utilities in the state derived 17.9% of their electricity from renewable sources like wind power, solar energy, and small-scale hydroelectric projects.  Perhaps more important than the actual numbers is the fact that the 2010 standard prompted utilities to make major new investments in renewable energy, reducing reliance on fossil fuels while creating construction jobs in California.  While California’s overall economy has faltered, renewable energy is one of the few sectors that has been rapidly growing and creating new jobs. 

This is good news not just for California, but also for other states that have their own renewable energy goals.  California has demonstrated that ambitious renewable energy deadlines are possible to meet, and that state policymakers who set them are not unrealistic dreamers.  In fact, in light of California’s success other states might have reason to ramp up their own renewable energy targets.  If California, an industrial powerhouse with a population of over thirty-seven million, can produce enough renewable electricity to meet it ambitious goals, then other states should be able to do the same.

There’s even a chance the federal government could come to see California as an example for the nation as a whole to follow.  After all, the Obama administration relied on a vehicle efficiency standard originally crafted by California as a model when brokering a historic agreement with automakers to decrease emissions from cars and trucks.  With climate and clean energy policy now faltering again at the federal level, California’s success story could be just what the nation needs.

Photo credit: “Oliver” on Flickr

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