June 19 2012

Energy Mandates in California

Diana McKibben

Present day political concern with the environment warns against the dangers of climate change, carbon footprints, and dirty energy. In response, many states have implemented renewable portfolio standards (RPS), but beautiful California has set a high goal to have 33 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable resources by the year 2020. This executive order was signed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2008 and codified by Governor Brown last year. Currently, California’s renewables make up half of the 2020 goal, or 14.6% according to the California Energy Commission.

According to the US Energy Information Administration, 2010 data show that California is on the higher end of average retail prices for electricity, and ranks second in the country after the state of Washington for U.S. renewable electricity capacity and generation.

California currently faces a serious budget crisis, so certain questions of cost and viability are important for women to consider in the face of executive order energy mandates.

First, will they cause electricity to become more expensive? Some argue that California’s goal of 33% for renewable energy certainly will. The state’s electric market already faces strains this summer due to two nuclear plants shutting down and a report issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration notes that the electric system operator for most of the state (the California Independent System Operator – CAISO), may face complications with ramping and voltage support while increasing amounts of wind, solar, and other renewables are integrated into the system.

Moreover, the amount of energy we consume is only expected to rise in the near future (data centers serving companies like Google and Facebook are one example). Meanwhile, renewables like solar and wind are variable. We’ll always have wind and sun intermittently, but our current challenge is with capturing it. While new technology to store energy such as batteries or flywheels are emerging, at present this technology is still very costly.

The other (ironic) problem with new storage technology is that it can pose environmental hazards by taking up lots of new land. California’s Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan (the Governor’s executive order as part of the renewables legislation) currently seeks to identify particular locations for renewable energy projects while trying to protect California’s desert regions which “support extraordinary biological and other natural resources of great value, including numerous threatened and endangered plant and animal species.”  

Particularly before the technological storage is adequate and while electric transmission grids could overload, California probably shouldn't be mandating such an ambitious percentage of renewables. The Golden State should aim to live within its means first.

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