California voters demand Democrats push clean energy

Almost all of California’s representatives to the US House are now Democrats, and the state is pushing harder than ever for sustainability. Will the US state be able to clean up its energy by 2045? L. Michael Buchsbaum takes a look.

In September, after enduring catastrophic year-round wildfires, floods, drought and other calamities, California’s outgoing Governor Jerry Brown, decided to take the next step in fighting combat climate change

California wants to transform the state’s electrical generation to 100% clean energy by 2045 (Photo by Tony Webster, CC BY 3.0)

In September, after enduring catastrophic year-round wildfires, floods, drought and other calamities, California’s outgoing Governor Jerry Brown, decided to take the next step in fighting combat climate change. He signed into law SB100, a plan to transform the state’s electrical generation to 100% clean energy by 2045. Key to the plan is ramping up battery storage and using the emerging technology to replace existing fossil fuel generation. Immediately following November’s midterm elections, the government began forcing stubborn utilities to comply.

With almost 40 million citizens, the state is the world’s fifth largest economy. It’s also one of the world’s greenest economies. California’s non-CO2 emitting electric Generation (nuclear, large hydroelectric, and renewables) accounted for more than 56 percent of total in-state generation for 2017, compared to 50 percent in 2016. Overall, the state’s Energy Commission estimates that 32% of retail energy sales were powered by renewable sources alone last year—far ahead of any other U.S. state. But the state still imports large volumes of dirty energy—partially because since 2000, all of its coal-fired generation and all but one of its nuclear plants have shuttered. Making up the gap is fossil gas, on average generating 33% of the state’s electricity.

California’s blue (green) wave

California has some of the highest retail costs for energy, and one might expect citizens to voice their opposition through the ballot box. But with fires raging, the electorate chose overwhelmingly to back Democrats at both the state and federal level. Voters sent 46 Democrats to the House of Representatives (out of 53 total delegates), flipping six seats including one in the heart of Orange County, Reagan Country, where voters had never before sent anyone other than a Republican to Washington.

Locally, Californians elected even more Democrats to the State Assembly, giving them a greater Super-Majority there. And over 62% of voters chose to elect Democrat and current Lt. Governor, Gavin Newsom as out-going Jerry Brown’s successor, essentially endorsing his clean energy agenda.

Since the 2002 establishment of a 20% Renewable Power Standard (RPS) by 2017, the state has progressively met and set new green energy standards. In 2008, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger revised the target upwards to 33% by 2020. In 2015, the legislature passed SB 350 establishing a new target of 50% by 2030. To get there, earlier this year California became the first U.S. state to mandate solar rooftop panels on almost all new homes. Today most utilities are actually meeting their 2020 targets, and many are already closing in on 50%.

California’s SB 100 follows on this gradual greening by establishing three new targets: 50% by 2026 (four years ahead of schedule), 60% by 2030 and 100% “carbon-free” energy by 2045. It also includes adding at least 1.3 gigawatts of energy storage to the state’s grid by 2020.

The so-called “carbon free energy” includes “baseload” renewables like geothermal and some biomass, as well as large hydro, new nuclear or natural gas with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Potentially zero-carbon could also include “Power to X” hydrogen generated from renewable energy coupled to storage—a cutting-edge system that’s gaining more traction.

Post-election push for renewables

Not wasting any time, immediately after the election, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approved a plan forcing PG&E, the state’s largest electricity provider, to accept stationary energy storage solutions as alternatives to the polluting natural gas-fired peaker plants. The CPUC mandated that the company begin to install over 568 MW of stationary energy storage spread over four installations.

Now cleared for construction is a 300 MW/1,200MWh installation by Vistra Energy Corporation that will become the largest battery storage project in the world. Tesla was contracted for the second largest installation of the bunch, with a 182.5 MW facility being built south of San Jose, California. According to Bloomberg—it will become the second largest stationary battery worldwide. They and other batteries are scheduled to come on line beginning by the end of 2020.

Building upon the rapid advance of lithium-ion based batteries worldwide, the cost of “storage at this scale is likely now cheaper than the total cost to run the gas plants,” said Alex Eller, senior energy research analyst at Navigant in an interview with the publication Utility Dive following the CPUC’s decision.

Transit emissions remain high

Despite California’s cleaner electricity, with almost 30 million individual drivers, its clear that transportation emissions are actually now the state’s biggest carbon problem, generating almost 40% of the state’s overall greenhouse gas emissions. To help combat this, Governor Brown established a target of 5 million zero-emission vehicles on California streets by 2030, as well as 250,000 zero-emission vehicle chargers, including 10,000 DC fast chargers, by 2025.

Additionally, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) also approved a plan to allocate nearly $500 million, largely funded by revenue generated from the state’s unique Cap and Trade system, to facilitate more electric medium- and heavy-duty vehicles. The funded projects include an electric school bus pilot, clean truck and bus vouchers and heavy-duty vehicle investments to put cleaner trucks on the road.

But each vehicle drawing power from the grid is, in terms of carbon emissions, only as clean as the overall grid. And buyers, despite the State initiatives, may still be priced out of expensive electric vehicles if battery technologies don’t both advance and become cheaper. However the new laws and overall mandate given to the Democrats are sending strong investment signals to businesses and consumers. “In 2017, $2.5 billion was invested in clean energy technology in the United States,” the nonprofit research organization Next 10 reports, “with 57.2 percent ($1.4 billion) going to California companies.” And it is already responsible for about 47 percent of all electric vehicles ever sold in the US.

While historically resistant to renewables, much of the generating industry is starting to salivate over their emerging opportunity to become the oil of the future and “own the plug” powering the new electric vehicle fleet. Ronald O. Nichols, president of Southern California Edison, whose company has made a commitment to install 50,000 charging stations in the area, anticipates that over 7 million electric cars will be operating in California within 12 years.

In any case, California’s citizens seem ready for a cleaner, greener future – let’s hope their newly-elected representatives are listening.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.


  1. Buchsbaum repeats the old denialist talking point and half-truth: “each vehicle drawing power from the grid is, in terms of carbon emissions, only as clean as the overall grid.” It’s very misleading. EVs are about 85% efficient plug-to-wheel; ICEVs about 15% tank-to-wheel. Fossil power stations range from 40% efficient (coal) to 60% (gas). So if 100 units of travel requires 100 units of electrical energy in an EV, that needs 166 units of gas energy or 250 units of coal energy in an all-fossil grid, disregarding transmission osses which are quite low. In an ICEV, the same run requires 667 units of oil energy, disregarding that needed for refining and distribution. So the EV is at least twice as good for CO2 emissions in the worst case. With every kwh of renewable energy supply into the grid, the pollution advantage of EVs gets better. With 33% renewables, the 100 units of electric travel only need 110 units of gas energy or 165 units of coal.

    For ambient air pollution, you trade street-level particulates and NOX for coal smokestack plumes (gas doesn’t create ambient pollution). You can’t use the identical calculation, but the smokestack pollution from 250 or 165 units of coal is obviously far less damaging that the street-level pollution from 666 units of oil.

  2. A different point. “He [Jerry Brown] signed into law SB100”. He did indeed, and it’s a major reform. The problem for Brown was that SB 100 was not his work but that of political rival Kevin de León, currently President of the California State Senate. Brown’s ingenious solution was to double down on green ambition by simultaneously signing executive order EO B-55-18 (pdf link) that declared the goal not of 100% clean *electricity* by 2045, as SB 100 does, but the far more ambitious one of full statewide *carbon neutrality* by the same date. This executive order is aspirational, but it moved the goalposts and upstaged de León, as Brown fully intended.

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