It’s a trend. Across the country more than 70 cities, five counties and one state — from Spokane, Wash., to Denver, from Minneapolis to New Brunswick, N.J. — are looking to turn their electricity grids entirely “green.” And they include towns in red states, too, such as Denton and Georgetown in Texas, the nation’s biggest wind producing state.
“By setting a real marker we’re sending a message to the country and world that regardless of who occupies the White House today, with or without Washington, California is moving forward,” said Kevin de León (D), a California state senator who sponsored the measure and who is running to oust U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
The task, however, is a tall one. Scale is one reason; California is the world’s fifth largest economy. Its population will grow by several million over the next 27 years and the size of the economy will more than double, straining the electricity grid. Waves of electric vehicles, if they catch on, could also add to the demand for electricity.
Then, there are the technological obstacles. Storage needs — and costs — spike higher as the use of renewable sources rises, eventually more than doubling the cost of new wind or solar.
Even if California and its followers all hit their targets, the impact could be modest. The United Nations Environment Programme, the definitive source for tracking the “emissions gap” between what the world aspires to do about climate change and what it’s actually doing, estimates “sub-national” actors would reduce emissions by about one or two percentage points of the global total by 2030.
Like so many other Silicon Valley types, Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who signed the bill into law last week, is betting on innovation. He hopes the new measure spurs companies to develop big and cheap-enough batteries to store intermittent renewable energy that is produced when the sun shines or the wind blows — not when homes and businesses need it.
“This takes expert engineering, scientific research, political collaboration and great wisdom to forge ahead not in one administration but in several,” Brown said in an interview. “That’s why I say we’re like at the base camp. I’m looking up at Mount Everest. We’ve got a big mountain to climb.”
California, which relies on natural gas for about a third of electricity generation, has some home advantages in chasing the 100 percent goal. It has large amounts of hydro and geothermal power. Moreover, electricity generation accounts for less than 20 percent of the state’s carbon emissions, far below the 34 percent level nationwide, according to the Energy Information Administration. Much of that is thanks to California’s moderate weather and modest amounts of heavy industry.
The state’s war on climate change also deserves some credit. California set its first renewable goals in 2002. It has raised those targets four times. It also has a cap and trade system that limits carbon emissions while allowing companies to buy and sell credits to meet the targets. The current price is $15 a ton.
The state’s policies have attracted significant investments. The nonprofit research organization Next 10, founded by venture capitalist F. Noel Perry, said 57.2 percent, or $1.4 billion, of all U.S. clean energy technology investment in 2017 went to California companies.
Brown has his worries though. The boom in solar has already swamped midday demand, once a troublesome peak time for electricity grids. Now, there’s so much solar that some of it can’t be used. At times, grid operators are actually paying people to use solar.
“I’m worried about the isolation of California, wasting so much solar energy that costs go off the charts,” Brown said in an interview, “and then there’s a backlash, and we don’t come close to our goals.”
California imports about a quarter of its electricity, and Brown has been pushing for a regional agreement that would include other states.
The state and city level standards for electricity grids are part of divisive skirmishes among policy experts who outwardly share the goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions.
In forging California’s legislation, one expert, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his relationships, compared the debates with “circular firing squads.”
An early version of the measure would have mandated 100 percent renewables, limiting those to solar, wind and geothermal by 2045. The final version, SB100, settled on a compromise. It allows up to 40 percent of the electricity to come from any zero-carbon technology, potentially including hydropower, nuclear or natural gas paired with carbon capture and storage.
Separately, the law raised the 2030 legally binding target for renewables from 50 percent to 60 percent.
“We need to use everything we have to get to low carbon,” Ernest Moniz, a physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was Barack Obama’s energy secretary, said in an interview. “Are we really going to handle it with wind, solar and batteries? I don’t think so, to be honest.”
Moniz said “you just need to have all the flexibility you can muster.”
Tom Steyer, the billionaire philanthropist and political activist, thinks the change in the law’s language doesn’t matter. He doesn’t expect anyone to build a new nuclear plant, and he doesn’t expect natural gas to be married to a carbon capture-and-storage technology.
“It’s conceivable, but unlikely,” he said. “I could be convinced. I’d like to see it. What we’ve seen so far with natural gas is overpromised and underdelivered from a climate viewpoint.”
The state’s major utilities have urged caution.
“If it’s not affordable, it’s not sustainable,” PG&E said in an email. “We believe customers must be protected from unreasonable rate and bill impacts.” It said “reaching the ambitious clean energy goals in SB 100 will present operational challenges in maintaining grid reliability.”
Any of the California scenarios stand in sharp contrast to initial expectations. When California adopted a law in 2002 forcing utilities to buy enough renewable energy to cover 20 percent of their electricity needs, foes said the measure would kill a million jobs, cost $100 billion and push electricity bills higher.
“The narrative was that it would destroy the economy and that it would cause unemployment, and it has done neither,” de León, the bill’s sponsor, said.
Even though California’s electricity rates are the seventh-highest in the nation, state energy efficiency programs have reduced household consumption so much that consumers’ utility bills are the sixth lowest in the country, de León said.
Utilities have met targets. In 2017, PG&E delivered 33 percent of its energy from renewable resources, three years ahead of the upwardly revised 2020 mandate. Southern California Edison in 2017 drew 32 percent of the power provided to customers from renewable sources and nearly 50 percent of its power was from non-carbon emitting resources.
“I don’t think people are worried about getting to 50 percent or 60 percent renewables. That in and of itself is good news,” said John Woolard, former vice president for energy at Google. “When we were fighting about this 10 years ago, people would say over 5 or 7 or 10 percent wind and solar and the whole system will fall apart. Now you’ve got data to repudiate that.”
Chris Mooney and Dino Grandoni contributed to this article.