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United States

Pioneering state takes on Trump over climate

UNITED STATES: California has introduced a bill requiring 100% of electricity to be sourced from renewables by 2045, putting the state at loggerheads with the pro-fossil-fuel federal government.

California wants to source 100% of its electricity from renewables by 2045 (pic: Nandaro)
California wants to source 100% of its electricity from renewables by 2045 (pic: Nandaro)

The extent of the Disunited States of America, a Trump era phenomenon, became clear when the US Senate confirmed climate denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

On the same day in mid-February, three thousand miles to the west, California's senate leader, Kevin de Leon, introduced a bill to increase his state's renewable portfolio standard (RPS) to 100% by 2045, up from the current 50%.

Donald Trump may have taken the first step in late March towards dismantling the Clean Power Plan (CPP), which would have boosted renewable energy from the 2020s and was overseen by the EPA.

"My administration is putting an end to the war on coal," he said, flanked by coal miners. The real-estate billionaire vowed to cancel "job-killing regulations" in the energy industry.

But major states such as California, New York and Massachusetts have become America's leaders in climate change and pro-renewables policy.

California, as much as anywhere else, is fighting back publicly against the new pro-fossil-fuel administration in the White House. The most populous US state, it is the sixth largest economy in the world and home to one out of every eight Americans. For decades, the state has spearheaded US environmental policy.

Following Trump's executive order on the CPP, de Leon, from Los Angeles, blasted Trump's actions as the real job killer. "In California, we've created 500,000 new jobs in the renewable space, energy efficiency as well as renewable energy, the power of the wind as well as solar," said de Leon.

"So, I'm not quite sure if he knows what he's talking about when it comes to creating real jobs."

Trump previously described climate change as a Chinese hoax designed to damage the US economy. Pruitt, during a TV interview with CNBC's Squawk Box in March, said that he does not believe that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to climate change.

Ambitious plans

California's ambitious climate agenda is to cut climate emissions by 40% below 1990 levels by 2030, a far more aggressive target than in any other US state.

De Leon's RPS bill, seeking 100% electricity from renewables by 2045, would accelerate the state's current goal of 50% by 2030. The new bill would move that 2030 deadline forward to 2025.

Tiny Hawaii is currently the only state with a 100% RPS. New York, the third largest state, is seeking to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030, and in Massachusetts, lawmakers are proposing that the state uses 100% renewable energy by 2050, even for heating and transport.

According to California's current RPS legislation, its utilities must procure a majority of renewable power from eligible resources that tie into a balancing authority located in-state.

Included could be wind power from the two-phase 3GW Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project in Wyoming, with its electricity transported by the proposed TransWest Express transmission line to the Pacific Southwest.

But under de Leon's bill, electricity generated from renewables could be imported from anywhere in the interconnected grid, including Canada and Mexico, notes Fereidoon Sionshansi, founder of energy consultancy Menlo Energy Economics.

California is well on its way, regardless of Trump.

Former president's Barack Obama's CPP, now under review by the Trump administration, requires a 32% cut in the electricity sector's CO2 emissions by 2030. But it was already on hold, tied up in the courts because of legal challenges in part led by Pruitt, the former attorney general of Oklahoma.

The CPP was immaterial to California anyway, says Amy Grace, head of North American research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

California's state mandates were much more rigorous than those mandated by the CPP. "Effectively, California had already met the CPP with its existing and planned build back in 2015," she says.

BNEF forecasts some 3.5GW of in-state wind build from 2017-25, admittedly not a great deal by the standards of the High Plains and heartland states, plus roughly 13.5GW of utility-scale solar development.

Make Consulting anticipates just over 200MW a year on average of new wind projects in California to 2020 and upwards of 400MW a year coming from out-of-state to satisfy the current RPS.

Many utilities in the state are already in a good position to meet their near-term RPS deadlines, notes Anthony Logan, an analyst at Make.

A concerted pushback in California and other states may come when Trump attacks the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.

There is reportedly division in Trump's administration over whether to take on the landmark agreement; on the campaign trail, the president said he would pull America out.

The White House has said Trump would decide whether to exit the agreement by 26 May.

De Leon's RPS bill has yet to be debated even in committee, but its prospects for passage are good, even if probably not this year, and it remains to be seen whether it will survive in its current state or be watered down. "It's not a slam dunk, but it has a good chance," says Sionshansi.

Both chambers of the legislature are led by De Leon's own party, and Governor Jerry Brown would surely sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

"It's clear the state remains doggedly committed to renewable-energy leadership, showcasing that to the rest of the country," says Jayant Kairam, California state director of the clean-energy programme at the Environmental Defence Fund.

Time will tell whether the Trump administration will retaliate against states such as California for their climate and energy policy.

On the campaign trail, he called for more political power to be returned to the states and for more funding of major infrastructure projects nationally.

His draft infrastructure list does include the $3 billion TransWest Express line, which would bring wind power to the desert south-west region including California, although there are doubts over the fate of an energy storage and grid modernisation project to help renewable-energy penetration in California.

Grid integration

More of an issue with the 100% RPS is the integration of that much renewables generation, using a larger balancing area and perhaps battery storage.

Experts say it is doable, but changes will have to be made. A recent study released by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) found that utility-scale solar plants, with the right type of inverter technology, can provide many of the essential grid reliability services, notes Laura Wisland, senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

And about a year ago, Brown proposed a western states grid, easing more renewables integration, although a complicated agreement would need to be hammered out with other states.

On the issue of emissions, California could face a hurdle because much of its remaining emissions come from vehicles. The state can go beyond federal standards on so-called tailpipe emissions, but it must secure a waiver from the EPA when setting new standards.

"It's normally been a formality ... (but) now Pruitt has indicated he is going to explore ways to potentially prevent (California) from getting new waivers," says Jeff Deyette, director of state policy and analysis at the UCS climate and energy programme. This could affect California's ability to reach its climate-change goals.

Nationally, Trump's victory does not especially seem to have emboldened renewable-energy foes, says Deyette, although it may be too early to tell. "But I think we'd have seen the seeds by now if there were going to be a pushback," he says.

State legislatures have debated the usual mix of proand anti-renewables bills, with the anti-side often backed by the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

Notably, in some states anti-renewables legislation is facing fierce opposition, such as in Ohio where legislation to undo the RPS has been passed by the House, but which faces a veto by the Republican governor, John Kasich, if the state senate does not pass it with a veto-proof majority.

Renewable energy has become such a bipartisan issue, notes Todd Foley, senior vice president of policy and government affairs at the American Council on Renewable Energy.

Wind development is typically seen as a jobs creator.

At a scientific conference in San Francisco in December, not long after Trump's surprise election, Jerry Brown threw down the gauntlet on climate change: "We've got the scientists, we've got the lawyers, and we're ready to fight," he said. "Whatever Washington thinks they are doing, California is the future."

Brown should know. During a previous term as governor in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he oversaw the birth of the global utility-scale wind industry.

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