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California aims to become carbon-free by 2045


The Conversation
Special to The Weather Network

Friday, September 14, 2018, 13:11 - California Governor Jerry Brown has signed a new law mandating that the electricity the state consumes not cause carbon emissions by 2045.

He also issued an executive order that goes even further: It commits California to “achieve carbon neutrality” across the board and not just for power generation by 2045. Together, these steps codify California’s ongoing transition away from relying on fossil fuels for energy. This effort has been ramping up since 2011, when Brown signed another law committing the state to deriving a third of its energy from renewable sources like wind and solar power by 2020 – not including big hydroelectric dams.

Based on more than 30 years of research related to solar energy, by my assessment, California can meet the law’s ambitious goal as long as it continues to implement programs that encourage the rapid expansion of renewable energy in the state.

A GROWTH INDUSTRY

The new law actually sets multiple targets rather than just one. It commits California to draw half its electricity from renewable sources by 2026, a share that would rise to 60 percent by 2030.

To take the next step, rather than mandating that all power be renewably sourced, state lawmakers established a 100 percent “zero-carbon” goal. They did not define this term, but it is understood as including wind and solar power, big hydropower plants and other sources of electricity that do not generate carbon dioxide.

Utility-scale solar and wind electricity increased from 3 percent in 2010 to 18 percent in 2017 in California, exceeding prior state targets, largely because solar prices have dropped sharply in recent years.

Being open to a wide range of technologies makes meeting the 2045 target easier and allowed State Senator Kevin de Leon, the original bill’s author, to amass broad support for the bill.


California State Sen. Kevin de Leon, celebrating after his colleagues approved the zero-carbon energy bill he championed for two years. AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

WHERE THINGS STOOD IN 2017

About 56 percent of the power California generated in 2017 came from sources that don’t emit carbon. That puts it more than halfway toward this new goal by 2045.




However, the Diablo Canyon plant, California’s last nuclear power station, is slated for decommissioning by 2025, and no other reactors are in the works. This closure would eliminate the 8.7 percent of the state’s carbon-free power that came from nuclear energy.

Nearly all of the remaining 44 percent of the state’s electricity is currently generated by burning natural gas, and virtually none comes from coal. Going completely zero-carbon would require phasing out the state’s natural gas power plants.

On top of wind and solar energy, other generation options include geothermal, small nuclear reactors and carbon dioxide sequestration.

One quirk about this legislation is that it deals only with utility-scale power. It would not preclude private electricity-generation facilities such as the diesel generator a farmer might use to pump water. Nor would it count the power generated by a homeowner’s rooftop solar panels.

WHEN THE SUN SHINES

One complication is that the state’s mix of energy sources can vary a great deal, even from one hour to the next.

Consider what happened on April 8, 2018, for example. It was a generally sunny and windy Sunday, with relatively low electricity demand. At night, about 40 percent of electricity was generated from renewable sources. But around noon that day, more than 80 percent came from renewable sources including large-scale hydropower.




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