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Can California meet its renewable energy goals by 2020?

Climate change may happen too gradually for deniers to notice a worrying difference but, compressed in annual charts, it seems like the state of our planet is deteriorating all too quickly. Global temperature levels are on the rise, as is pollution and deforestation. Reactions and measures have been, of course, rather chaotic, and the U.S. stills lack a unified, collective set of regulations for all states to abide by: while Alaska’s mining industry produces millions of toxins, California wants to become 100% renewable and boasts an impressive growth of the solar and energy sectors. But how realistic are these goals exactly and are we missing some considerable barriers that could slow down progress?

Solar and wind energy sectors

Ever since California introduced the obligatory clean energy production report in 2002, it has become one of the main contenders for the nation’s greenest states. According to the latest report, the three utility providers owned by investors could give 50% of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, although the initial plan was to achieve this by 2030. Despite some initial resistance to the transition, renewable energy did not kill the economy, nor did it raise energy bills. In fact, both the solar and the wind energy sectors have been unstoppable and costs have actually decreased: in eight years, the price of solar power per megawatt-hour has dropped by $100 and the price for wind power by $45.

In April 2017, California generated a record 67.2% of its energy from renewable sources in one day. This, along with similar initiatives in other states (Las Vegas powers government buildings only from renewable sources, for instance), led other states to set equally ambitious goals, including aforementioned Alaska.  

Emission-free vehicles

In late December 2017, San Francisco Assemblyman Phil Ting introduced a bill that all vehicles sold from 2040 onwards be emission-free, in continuity with Governor Jerry Brown's project to have 1.5 million green vehicles on California roads by 2025. According to environmental studies, the cars that run on fossil fuels account for 40% of greenhouse gasses in California, so switching to emission-free vehicles would be a breath of fresh air.

At present, there are over 300,000 electric vehicles in California and their beneficial effects have been well noted, as air quality tests show an improvement in air purity. Nevertheless, many wonder if the goal of 100% free emission vehicles is attainable in such a short period of time. In 2016, only 2% of the total of vehicles sold were emission free and experts fear that such a transition would require very complex infrastructure put into place. California is not the only state with such high goals though: Germany and the UK have talked about similar changes.

100% renewable by 2045?

Despite President Trump’s widely contested decision to pull the US from climate policies, California officials are committed to sticking with the state’s existing renewable energy goals, namely to become 60% renewable by 2030 and 100% renewable by 2045, along with Massachusetts and Hawaii.

Downsides and challenges

Renewable energy progress in California is clear, but there will undoubtedly be many challenges along the way for climate change advocates, the biggest one being that Scott Pruitt, a climate change skeptic, was appointed by Trump to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and that Trump wants to prop up the coal industry. His project was rejected at the beginning of the year, but environmental advocates fear that similar pro-coal and pro-initiatives could follow.

California’s efforts to reduce pollution do not stop temperatures from rising and specialists estimate that people will become more reliant on AC units in the future. This means almost substituting one source of pollution – fossil fuels from vehicles – to another source of pollution, the gasses have off by HVAC units.

One natural obstacle that could potentially block California’s path to a renewable future is the changing wind patterns caused by pollution. The quasi-biennial oscillation that NASA is trying to analyze could mean bring unpredictability for the wind energy sector.

But, even once California becomes 50% renewable by the desired date, wouldn’t exceeding this percentage be much harder and raise complex challenges that are yet unknown?



Geary Sikich's picture
Geary Sikich

More regulations generally do not help; rather they hinder. Many organizations either shift the focus of the business or seek a new location to operate from. As long as energy is plentiful and relatively cheap very little changes.

Roger Clarke-Johnson's picture
Roger Clarke-Johnson

Sorry to burst your bubble, but as the CNN Money article you linked to correctly observes: "...the goals are best viewed as political aspirations. It's really unclear (whether the goals will be achieved or not). These are political statements."  And indeed, California is famous for making political statements that have unintended conseqeucnes (see also: Power Crisis of 2001). Whenever politicians turn vote-getting political statements into pie-in-the-sky mandates imposed upon the electric utilities, fun and games always ensue.  While dramatically less than before (thanks to China's dumping of cheap solar PV and the emergence of mega off-shore windmills), the actual dollars-and-cents COST of wind and solar remains 3X - 5X higher than Traditional generation (e.g. gas-fired mainline steam or legacy hydro). Ratepayers don't see the extra cost on their bills because the government cleverly steals it out of their other (taxpaying) pocket via the subsidies they grant to Wind and Solar producers ... but not hydro, which is odd because hydro is the original Clean and Green renewable resoure.

william harris payne's picture
william harris payne

Erratic, intermittent, low capacity factor wind/utility-scale solar generation of electricity deficiencies under scrutiny.  Google" energiewende 2017, Stop These Things. Matt Williams, Williams Windmill, Lemitar NM. http://www.prosefights.org/irp2014/p112017/mattwilliams.mp3