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Essential Energy Insights - October 2021


Extreme weather, citizen backlash jeopardize California's climate plans

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Standing on the bottom of a dried-out lake, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared the state's first drought emergency in Sonoma and Mendocino counties in April. Since then, 50 of the state's 58 counties have been added to the drought list.
Source: Governor Newsom's Office

California has what most states do not: a legislature, governor and state agencies all working in tandem to make deep greenhouse reduction cuts and reach carbon neutrality, perhaps as early as 2035.

California has investors willing to put their money into the massive build-out of renewables and procurement projects lining up — plus, according to its bullish Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, a healthy $76 billion budget surplus for fiscal year 2021-22.

Against the backdrop of the latest and most dire climate report from the world's leading scientists, the Golden State seems to be well-positioned to lead the nation’s decarbonization effort. Yet, the challenges facing the state show how difficult, while perhaps not insurmountable, this task will be.

Climate change itself is jeopardizing California's ability to meet its own emission reduction targets, just as growing local opposition to large-scale renewable energy projects is slowing the state's transition to a clean economy.

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California's latest greenhouse gas inventory shows that in 2019 the state continued to reduce emissions well ahead of its mandated interim 2020 target. State officials expect an ever-deeper drop in emissions during 2020 as the pandemic took a bite out of transportation emissions, even as historic wildfires sent nearly 107 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

Less clean hydroelectricity, more natural gas and diesel

But intensifying forest fires are only one of the state's mounting challenges.

In August, worsening drought tied to climate change forced California's second-largest hydroelectric facility to shut down for the first time ever. California's Department of Water Resources announced Aug. 5 that the Hyatt hydroelectric facility no longer had enough water to operate.

The facility, consisting of the Edward C Hyatt and Edward C Hyatt PS pumped storage units, has operated since the late 1960s. The agency puts the facility's overall generating capacity at 750 MW.

The water at Oroville Dam above the plant stood at a record-low 641 feet that day and has since dropped by another 3 feet, state water data shows. Fifty of California's 58 counties, also home to 40% of California's population, are under a drought emergency.

"This is just one of many unprecedented impacts we are experiencing in California as a result of our climate-induced drought," Karla Nemeth, the Department of Water Resources director, said in a statement. "California and much of the western part of the United States are experiencing the impacts of accelerated climate change, including record-low reservoir levels due to dramatically reduced runoff this spring."

State forecasts indicate that Lake Oroville will not reach sufficient water levels until next winter at the earliest, which means the hydro plant will sit idle for months.

Although hydroelectricity accounted for less than 14% of California's power mix in 2020, the loss of any clean power is a conundrum for a state that is seeking to rapidly decarbonize its electric grid while meeting essential energy needs.

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A few days before the Oroville Dam hydro plant shut down, excessive heat prompted Gov. Newsom to declare a state of emergency to allow more natural gas and other fossil-fueled energy onto the electric grid. The governor's July 30 order suspended clearances normally needed to expand the use of energy sources that the state is seeking to phase out.

Newsom also ordered large energy consumers to rely on backup generators to lessen the pressure on the power grid, which utilities are also allowed to do in case of so-called power safety shutoffs to reduce the risk for wildfires. Those generators usually run on diesel that releases soot and worsens local air quality, and California businesses and homeowners have invested in thousands as safety shutoffs abound.

Local opposition slams brakes on renewables

From where Rajinder Sahota sits, crippling wildfires and drought no longer pose the largest barriers to the state meeting its climate goals — people do. The deputy executive officer of climate change and research at the California Air Resources Board, Sahota is watching local opposition intensify against large-scale solar and other clean energy projects.

Until now, Sahota observed, California utilities have been exceeding their increasingly stringent clean energy procurement targets for 2030. They will not be able to sustain that pace, needed to also electrify transportation and other sectors of the economy, if local governments continue to halt or delay construction permits for renewables, Sahota warned.

"Of all places, California knows climate change really well," Sahota said. "I don't think we expected, or that we anticipated ... this level of push-back on the things that we think we need to do to actually transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy in the state."

Some California cities and counties, including the populous San Bernardino County and Solano County southwest of Sacramento, have passed ordinances prohibiting wind and solar projects in their communities. Others, like oil-rich Kern County, are moving to reevaluate solar project permits amid tension over Newsom's order to end all drilling in the state by 2045.

"There's a disconnect there," Sahota said. "We really need to start highlighting that if we don't let these projects move forward now, we will not hit our 2045 targets."

Building electrification and a recall election

Colleen Kredell, director of research for the San Francisco think tank Next10, said many California communities are aligned with the state government's resolve to tackle climate change. Some 100 cities are now requiring all new construction to be electric-only with no natural gas-fueled appliances, Kredell said.

On Aug. 11, the California Energy Commission voted to update the statewide building code to forge a shift to electric heat pumps and water heaters.

"I'm less worried about permitting than I am about buildings and transportation," Kredell said.

When California passed its landmark Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, the nation's first state policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, "people said they thought we would destroy the economy," Kredell said. "We demonstrated that it can be done. But at this point, we're very much living the impacts of climate change and with changing priorities. What emergency do we address first?"

Another potential threat to Newsom's climate ambitions and political future, California is facing a Sept. 14 recall election that has the state's normally underdog Republicans energized and Democrats in California and beyond increasingly alarmed. The California League of Conservation Voters is warning the recall is a "threat to California's climate progress."