California’s energy future: Are we ready for 100?

Wind turbines in operation near Palm Springs. (Photo: Sumikophoto, via Shutterstock)

Imagine a California powered solely by renewable energy – it may be within reach as the California Legislature considers Senate Bill 100, which would put the state on the path towards 100% fossil-fuel free electricity by 2045. On Tuesday, the bill passed the state Assembly, and it now heads to the state Senate for a final vote before reaching Gov. Brown’s desk by the end of the week. The likely passage of SB 100 has sparked a statewide debate around one question: Are we ready for 100?

To get ready for 100, we need the energy infrastructure to get us there, but we also must establish forward-thinking policies to protect public and environmental health as we develop and operate this new energy infrastructure – it’s a priority that often gets left out of the debate.

There is a reason why the Sierra Club is calling for 100% clean and renewable energy – when done irresponsibly, renewable energy is not always clean.

If SB 100 becomes law, our state has a unique advantage to achieve this goal. California contains the largest amount of geothermal electric generation capacity in the U.S. – more than 80% of the total generating capacity nationwide – but tapping into this supply invites risk.

Geothermal reservoirs contain poisonous elements like arsenic. Producing geothermal energy involves the extraction and injection of fluids deep underground that can alter the earth’s underground structure and reservoir pressure, causing toxins to leak into the surrounding environment that can cause substantial environmental and human health effects if not monitored and addressed in real-time. The problem is, as it stands today, there are no clear standards in place to mitigate and respond to the risks associated with geothermal energy production.

Take the Town of Mammoth Lakes, which depends on groundwater for drinking and daily use in homes and businesses. Next to Mammoth’s groundwater reservoir is a geothermal reservoir that Ormat Technologies, Inc. uses to produce geothermal energy, and a permeable rock layer allows fluids, heat and other constituents to travel between the two reservoirs.

An independent analysis of new water quality data collected by the United States Geological Survey demonstrates that geothermal fluids are already present in Mammoth’s groundwater. The groundwater well that contains the largest proportion of geothermal fluids also contains arsenic levels that are 10 times the maximum allowable contaminant level for drinking water set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prior to treatment for potable use. If the arsenic levels in this well increase as Ormat expands geothermal production, treating the water may no longer be an option using existing treatment technologies.

The Mammoth Community Water District has called on Ormat, elected officials and regulators to enact common-sense preventative measures to protect the public’s drinking water and mandate an immediate response in the event of contamination. However, Ormat’s plans to expand geothermal production continue without any meaningful attempt to address the District’s concerns, potentially placing Mammoth’s primary drinking water supply at greater risk.

There is a reason why the Sierra Club is calling for 100% clean and renewable energy – when done irresponsibly, renewable energy is not always clean. To be true leaders in the field, California must set a precedent for managing renewable energy production and ensuring that these projects meet basic standards for safeguarding people and the environment.

State leaders have a real-time crisis unfolding in Mammoth that they can study to understand how to develop the right rules and regulations to prevent significant harm from happening now and avoid future risks.

Given our experience in Mammoth, we urge state leaders to establish commonsense regulations for geothermal and other renewable energy production to ensure our energy sources are truly “clean.” California has an opportunity to show the country that we can reduce reliance on fossil fuels, but we must simultaneously build the regulatory framework needed to ensure that we renewably power our communities in a way that truly leaves behind a better world tomorrow. That’s how we get ready for 100.

Ed’s Note: Patrick Hayes is the general manager of the Mammoth Community Water District.

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