United States: Calif. Senate Passes Climate Package Aiming For 50% Renewable Power, Halving Petroleum Use

California's Senate yesterday accelerated the state's push for clean energy, passing a bundle of climate bills that aimed to shrink sharply greenhouse gas emissions, increase renewable power to 50 percent of electricity and chop in half petroleum use by 2030.

The upper chamber's set of 12 measures also included one calling for two state pension funds, which are the nation's largest, to divest from thermal coal. Another bill sought to ramp up transit and inner-city rail. There were multiple measures looking to develop plans to help the state adapt as climate change proceeds.

The bills still must pass the state's Assembly, and similar ones from that chamber must be reconciled with Senate versions. But Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D) cast the effort in momentous terms, calling the climate legislation "the most far-reaching not just in California history, but in U.S. history."

"This package of bills will put California on a pathway to sustainable economic growth, protecting the health of our communities and the integrity of our environment while also spurring a wave of innovation in our energy and transportation sectors," de León said as he stood with a host of other senators after passage.

"These policies will bring much-needed investments to our infrastructure systems, reduce energy costs for families, create jobs in construction and energy efficiency retrofitting, reduce the harmful air pollutants that our children breathe into their lungs, and increase the livability and walkability of our communities," he added.

One of the lead bills in the package was from de León. S.B. 350 would put into law the goals Gov. Jerry Brown (D) set out in January, increasing the state's renewable power mandate to 50 percent, halving petroleum consumption and requiring a 50 percent improvement in the energy efficiency of buildings.

The state Senate also approved S.B. 32 from Sen. Fran Pavley (D), which would extend the state's landmark climate law. Her legislation directs the California Air Resources Board to limit the state's greenhouse gas emissions in 2050 to 80 percent below 1990's level.

Bills in the package passed mostly on party-line votes, with Democrats having enough members to not need GOP support. The Senate's Republican caucus called the package a "job killer." Greenhouse gases "don't end at California's border?" said Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff (R).

"When we stop burning coal for fuel, it doesn't stop Arizona or other states from doing it," Huff said. "We have a lofty and noble goal. But other than feeling good about it, what does it accomplish?"

But Democrats control both chambers in California's Legislature. Those familiar with Golden State politics said they expected the climate measures to pass out of the Assembly, though some changes to the language were expected.

Putting 'meat on the bones' of state targets

There are more moderate Democrats in the lower chamber. There's likely to be talk about putting "more meat on the bones of S.B. 350," said Ann Notthoff, director of California advocacy for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The language in the bill on petroleum use, for example, tells the state air board to adopt a "cost effective, and technologically feasible," means of halving gas and diesel consumption. But it doesn't specify a baseline level from which to subtract the 50 percent. The oil industry has complained that more details are needed so that Californians know what to expect.

Notthoff said there could be debates about how much detail to add on the other parts of S.B. 350 dealing with the renewable energy mandate and building energy efficiency. S.B. 32 also sets the goal for carbon emissions in 2050 but doesn't describe how to accomplish it.

"Right now, the bill language sets out specific targets. It's not that prescriptive how you get there," Notthoff said. "There's going to be a healthy conversation about how prescriptive" to be, she said, versus how much authority should be delegated to ARB.

Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips said there's the possibility that some moderate Democrats would seek to weaken the bills. She noted that Assemblyman Henry Perea (D) last month took one of his existing bills, A.B. 1511, stripped out the language and amended it to include wording that would change rules on the state's renewable power mandate.

Perea's amendments said that a utility could try to meet its green power requirement with the energy from distributed generation, which generally means rooftop solar and other local systems. Right now, that cannot be counted toward the renewable portfolio standard (RPS). The new version of A.B. 1511 also would let utilities recover in rates the costs of any program offering incentives to increase building energy efficiency. The revised measure was held in the Rules Committee.

"The challenge here is to see what Henry Perea and the moderates do" as the climate package moves forward, Phillips said.

There is opposition from some in the oil industry. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), the trade group representing BP, Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Shell Oil Co. and other oil companies, yesterday criticized S.B. 350.

"Unfortunately, it's not a surprise or 'historic' that the Senate pro Tem's bill passed out of the Senate," WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd said in a statement. "What is surprising is the lack of serious discussion on this major proposal and its implications for California's families and businesses.

"We will continue to educate consumers and businesses on the enormous negative impact the legislation will have on all Californians and hope members of the Assembly are more willing to take a critical look at this legislation than did their counterparts in the Senate," she added.

Green groups and other climate advocates lauded the package's passage.

"Parents and families are thankful for the leadership of Senator Pro-Tempore Kevin De Leon and Senator Fran Pavley," Lisa Hoyos, director and co-Founder of Climate Parents, said in a statement. "They are prioritizing kid safe, climate safe energy over the narrow political interests of fossil fuel companies that would rather thwart progress than innovate. Our kids are our state's most precious resource, and the Senate's vote to protect their health and safety by reducing fossil fuel pollution and expanding clean energy underscores why California is the Golden State."

Can utilities 'leapfrog into the 21st century'?

The goals set out by de León's S.B. 350 and Pavley's S.B. 32 are achievable, said Dan Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Every research group in California that has examined the issue has indicated the ambitions are realistic, he said. The real issue is all of the different groups that have different perspectives on how to meet the targets and different recommended pathways.

"That just really highlights that we really could do it," Kammen said.

As well, the cost would not be high, he said. Solar prices are falling, and California has shown in recent years that clean energy is a job creator. About 40 percent of all of the nation's venture capital investment in clean energy technology flows through California, Kammen said.

However, "there are real challenges," Kammen said. Among those, he said, is that the state's Public Utilities Commission will have to develop a new set of rules for utilities.

"They're going to have to make the distributed energy market the market to be in, and that's a lot of coordination," Kammen said. In addition, he said, "utilities, they're going to have to really leapfrog into the 21st century. They're going to have to really change."

California has a directive that is not yet in law that every new home after 2020 should have a solar rooftop and be "aggressive about energy efficiency," he said. The state also needs to "incentivize storage being built ... so that lots and lots of businesses are storing power" they can sell back to utilities.

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