Building our way out of the climate crisis takes planning

Clean energy, image by ideadesign

OPINION – When state lawmakers and Governor Gavin Newsom enacted a more ambitious timeline last year for transitioning our economy to clean energy, they prompted a reckoning.

Even as California has made great strides and raised the bar on climate action, it has not adequately planned for our long-term energy needs. Now we are at a turning point. We need a plan to reach the state’s new clean energy targets of 90 percent by 2035 and 95 percent by 2040 on the road to 100 percent by 2045.

Big picture thinking is needed to unleash California’s clean energy potential. By working with other states, we can build an energy grid capable of producing the affordable, reliable clean power we need.

The climate won’t wait and neither should we. Scientists conclude this decade is our best chance to protect Californians from the most dangerous impacts of climate change – extreme heat, drought and wildfires, along with harmful pollution. We can build our way out of crisis but it requires developing clean energy at unprecedented scale. It took 100 years to build California’s energy system. Reinventing it in just over 20 years requires a plan to match the task.

Unfortunately, California is scrambling.

This month, three natural gas-fired power plants in Southern California were authorized to stay open beyond planned closure dates and their operators will be paid over a billion dollars to provide expensive, dirty emergency power to help prevent blackouts. It follows emergency legislation last year postponing closure of our only nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon.

Building a 100 percent clean energy economy requires increasing our clean energy capacity by 400 percent. Most of this growth will come from electrifying our vehicles and our buildings. Meeting this target by 2045 requires building nearly five times as much new clean energy every year than has been done over the last decade.

Big picture thinking is needed to unleash California’s clean energy potential.

Intending to boost new clean energy projects, legislation enacted in June weakened environmental protections to accelerate project approval despite questions whether it would deliver results. Delays are typically found within project planning, permitting, and siting.

A big idea to propel our clean energy transition lies in a February report from California’s independent energy grid operator. It recommends California participate in a regional transmission organization (RTO) to provide the fastest, cheapest options to build a clean energy future. RTOs oversee multi-state electricity markets. By sharing power, they make energy bills more affordable and prevent blackouts. There is no RTO in the West but, last month, California state energy regulators announced their intention to create one with counterparts from Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington.

This is an exciting opportunity for California to lead on climate action. With 80 percent of energy customers in the West served by utilities sharing California’s pioneering commitment to 100 percent clean energy, we should work together. The effects of climate change don’t stop at state borders so our efforts fighting it should not be so rigidly confined.

As a practical matter, pursuing our clean energy goals alone will be much harder and more expensive. The notion contradicts today’s reality where California imports a third of its power. Disrupting our energy supply through isolation would cause more blackouts, higher energy prices, and a weaker economy. Meanwhile, California would continue scrambling through prolonged dependence on fossil fuels causing the climate crisis.

In contrast, a western RTO would save California $563 million in energy costs each year while providing more flexibility to obtain the power we need with new transparency and accountability over energy import prices, sources, and related climate emissions.

By participating in a regional energy market, California’s clean energy generators could freely export their surplus power to a larger customer base. Currently, they are often forced to curtail operations or sell at a loss – not a formula for staying in business. Eliminating these barriers will create huge financial incentives to build new clean energy projects across California.

A western RTO will magnify the growth of clean energy markets and jobs through helping build interstate transmission lines. This remains critical to delivering California’s clean energy where it’s needed, along with solar power from the Southwest, wind power from the Mountain states, and hydroelectric power from the Northwest.

This is the blueprint for building a clean energy future. Collaboration is how we create the largest green jobs boom in history to save California from unchecked climate change.

The alternative is California’s clean energy transition will be unaffordable and inequitable. Even worse, it could stop before it starts.

Katelyn Roedner Sutter serves as California State Director at Environmental Defense Fund

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