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A key vote this week in Sacramento has moved California closer than most people could imagine to a future in which all electricity — 100 percent of it — is produced without releasing more carbon into the air. When Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León proposed the bill, many viewed it as aspirational. Now, it could actually become the law of the land.
SB 100 had already passed the state Senate. Now it has passed the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and more challenging Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee. That makes it likely it will end up on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk, said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California.
If Brown signed it, California utilities would have to get 50 percent of electricity from clean sources on an even more accelerated schedule than the law currently requires, by 2026 instead of 2030. The law also mandates 60 percent by 2030. By 2045, there would be no more fossil fuel electricity in California, 28 years from now.
“Imagine knowing that 28 years ago that Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, Lyft as well as the iPhone, were just around the corner. That is the kind of opportunity we have today, right here, in California, with clean energy,” De León told the Assembly Utilities and Energy Committee.
Nuclear energy is permitted under the law. Large hydropower also counts as zero carbon, once a utility has reached 60 percent.
De León is one of the most powerful people in Sacramento. He reminded a packed room on Wednesday that the state’s largest manufacturer is now Tesla, and that the number of clean energy workers in California alone dwarfs the number of coal miners in the entire country.
The testimony of Robbie Hunter, president of the state building trades council, showed just how deep the state has sojourned in its clean energy conversion. We used to build power plants, he said.
“Now we are building renewable plants: solar, wind, geothermal and biomass,” Hunter said.
Even a single solar farm can offer significant work in a region with high unemployment. More than 100 apprentice ironworkers who had not finished high school were hired on one, he said, and ironworkers typically make up only 10 percent of the trades on a job like that.
But Hunter said utility companies like SDG&E have brought in so much new clean energy that they are now ahead of the requirements in current law.
“We’ve already seen construction slow down because major utilities have what they need to meet the 50 percent. The industry is ready and waiting. The workforce is ready and waiting. All we need is SB 100,” he said.
The line to testify in favor of the bill overflowed into the hallway.
— Vote Solar (@votesolar) July 12, 2017
More than 70 people spoke, urging legislators to go forward. You could hear the surprise in the voices of some Assembly members at the strength of the support.
But not everyone was buying the idea that all clean energy is good for all Californians. Republican Assemblyman Jim Patterson, whose district runs from north Sacramento to Kings Canyon National Park, pressed Democrat De Leon on the cost of this transition.
“In 2016, the four investor-owned utilities shut off almost 870 thousand accounts because people can’t pay their electricity bill. That is equal to all the households in San Francisco and San Diego combined,” he said.
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Patterson cited research that Californians pay rates higher than people and businesses in other parts of the country.
If you live on the coast in San Francisco and San Diego, you are doing just fine, he said. But if you live inland, where the weather is scorching, “they are being priced absolutely out of being comfortable and being able to use their electricity.”
Rates are one thing. Your total bill is another. Even with high rates, some studies show people’s overall bills in California are competitively low. That is because appliances and buildings have to be more efficient here.
The utilities have not staked out a strong stance opposing SB 100. Darren Bouton with Southern California Edison struck a moderate tone.
“With all due respect for my friends in the room — and I am impressed with the list of supporters we have seen from the renewables industry — it is fair to say that none of them have as much skin in the game as far as how a lot of this actually works,” Bouton said.
Joe Britton, communications manager with San Diego Gas & Electric, said in a statement, “SDG&E and SoCalGas are dedicated to helping the state fight climate change and attain our clean energy goals.”
He pointed out 43 percent of the power provided by SDG&E last year came from sources that do not contribute to climate change. San Diego-based parent company Sempra has no position on SB 100 yet, the statement said.
Forty-three percent is one of the highest percentages in the country. It is a sign of the times that soon it might not be near enough.