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California Tries Again With 3 Landmark Clean Energy Bills. This Time Things Are Different

June 27, 2018


The energy landscape has changed and last year’s obstacles may have shifted for 100 percent clean energy, grid expansion and a storage program.

The road ahead looks clearer for clean energy bills that stalled in Sacramento last year.

California has championed clean energy and climate change mitigation, but legislators last year failed to pass SB 100, a 100 percent clean energy bill authored by Senate leader Kevin De León and supported by Governor Jerry Brown. The bill would increase the state’s renewable energy goal to 60 percent by 2030, and require entirely carbon-free electricity by 2045.

A different bill to regionalize the California grid faltered last year, and one to create a long-term funding program for energy storage disappeared from the agenda before a vote last July.

All three have returned to the hearing agenda this June, and evidence suggests old sources of opposition are receding.

In Democrat-controlled Sacramento, utilities, utility workers, environmentalists and clean energy industry groups all vie for influence to achieve their policy goals. In the past, utility workers’ unions sought to protect distribution grid jobs with amendments that would impede the growth of third-party owned distributed energy resources, which present an alternative to traditional utility investments.

Such opposition helped scuttle De León’s bill last time. But multiple sources in Sacramento told GTM that such amendments aren’t expected on SB 100 this year. The bill is scheduled for a committee hearing July 3.

“I’m cautiously optimistic — I think we have a shot of continuing California’s leadership on clean energy and working with all parties to make it happen,” said Dan Jacobson, state director for Environment California.

The grid regionalization bill, AB 813, passed out of committee Tuesday. It aims to create a broader electricity system for trading renewable energy, with major ramifications for the state’s electricity system.

A regional grid would be able to source renewable energy from a wider geographical swath, smoothing out the intermittency of those sources and potentially saving hundreds of millions of dollars. Critics assert that doing so would surrender California’s control over the cleanliness of the energy mix, allowing coal power to seep back into the California grid. It would also mean California relies more on power plants built in other states, shifting the location of energy jobs.

Debate is sure to continue as this bill moves forward.

Another bill, SB 700, which would create a long-term storage program modeled on the California Solar Initiative, enjoyed a visible thaw with potential critics. It cleared a committee vote Wednesday afternoon.

Scott Wetch, the lobbyist representing the California State Association of Electrical Workers, wrote a letter Monday to Senator Scott Wiener, the bill’s author, endorsing the legislation.

“This Self-Generation Incentive Program is critical to facilitating the deployment of distributed energy systems into the electrical grid,” reads the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Greentech Media. “This will improve the efficiency and reliability of the distribution and transmission system, reduce costs and reduce greenhouse gases.”

That marks a dramatic departure from earlier rhetoric that framed distributed energy as a threat to well-paying union jobs and the security and reliability of the grid.

This bill is not advancing in a vacuum; it’s part of an interconnected portfolio of energy bills moving through the legislature simultaneously.

Assemblymember Chris Holden chairs the utility and energy committee. He’s the one who pulled SB 700 before the vote last year. He also authored the grid regionalization bill, which passed out of the Senate energy committee Tuesday. Wiener, the author of SB 700, voted yes for Holden’s regional grid bill.

All three energy bills need to clear additional votes before they become law. Even if they succeed, it’s entirely possible that language regarding distributed energy will resurface in some of the other bills on the table, changing the landscape for negotiation.

“I don’t think it will be over until August 31, 12 midnight, when they bang the gavel,” Jacobson said.

If the bills’ reception has changed since last year, so has the utility industry’s bargaining position.

Questions loom over what will happen to the state’s investor-owned utilities if grid regionalization occurs. But they are already experiencing homegrown defection in the form of community-choice aggregation, in which local governments procure their own power for delivery by the utility wires.

Most dramatically, Cal Fire investigators concluded that PG&E equipment and pruning standards started several of the wildfires that ripped through Northern California last fall. California subscribes to a legal principle known as “inverse condemnation,” which makes utilities liable for damages even if they violated no laws. That means utilities could face greater liability than they would in other states.

A separate bill is moving through the legislature to address how the state handles liability.

With more existential threats to worry about, utilities have a different calculus for how to spend political capital compared to last time.

Another difference from last year: This will be the last session for Governor Brown and De León, making it their last chance to cement their legacies for climate action, noted RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote and elected chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus.

Brown also is hosting a Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in September, when climate leaders from around the world will arrive to coordinate progress toward climate commitments.

“I think he wants to present this as part of the proof that California is moving into a clean energy-based economy,” Miller said of the clean energy legislation.

Clearing committees is just one step. With stakes high all around, the negotiations in the full Assembly and Senate will keep the suspense going for the rest of the summer.

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