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California Intensifies Its Renewable Energy Goals But Concedes to Oil

By the end of 2030, half of California's electricity will come from the wind, the sun and other renewable sources under a new law that sets one of the country's most ambitious clean-energy targets.

By David R. Baker

By the end of 2030, half of California's electricity will come from the wind, the sun and other renewable sources under a new law that sets one of the country's most ambitious clean-energy targets.

The law, signed Wednesday by Gov. Jerry Brown, accelerates California's shift away from fossil fuels as its dominant source of energy and marks another milestone in the state's fight against climate change.

"We've got to realize that we are here today because of oil -- oil and gas, to a lesser extent, coal," Brown said at a signing cermony overlooking a hazy Los Angeles from the Griffith Observatory. "What has been the source of our prosperity has become the source of our ultimate destruction, if we don't get off of it."

But in a sign of the oil industry's continued clout in Sacramento, the law no longer contains one of its most important original provisions, which called for slashing the state's oil use in half. California ranks as the nation's third-largest oil producing state, behind only Texas and North Dakota, and the industry counts staunch allies in both parties.

The law still includes provisions designed to encourage the use of electric vehicles, which the state considers an important tool for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and smog. The legislation, SB350, also calls for doubling the energy efficiency of buildings.

The law expands a transformation already well under way.

For more than a decade, California has required its electrical utility companies to use more renewable power, with the Legislature repeatedly raising the goal. The previous target had been 33 percent renewable power by the end of 2020 -- a level the utilities are confident they will meet.

The requirement led to a construction boom for solar power plants and wind farms. But the activity slowed in recent years as developers waited to see whether the Legislature would once again set a higher target. The new law eases that uncertainty, ensuring that California remains a major market for companies that design and build renewable power facilities.

The push to add solar and wind power to the grid has boosted Californians' electricity bills -- but not by much. Pacific Gas and Electric Co., the state's largest utility, estimates that the state's renewable power requirements have raised bills by 1 to 2 percent each year.

Other states have adopted their own renewable power goals, a few of them higher than California's. This year, Hawaii passed legislation calling for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045, while Vermont set a requirement of 75 percent renewable power by 2032. But both states have just a fraction of California's population and use far less electricity as a result.

While some business groups have complained that California's aggressive climate and energy policies could burden local companies with higher costs, the same policies have helped create a thriving clean-technology industry in the state. Supporters of the new law say it sends those companies a signal that the state won't back off its goals.

"It's not an accident that the clean-vehicle industry is headquartered in California," said Ryan Popple, CEO of Proterra, a company that makes electric buses. Formerly based in South Carolina, the company this week celebrated the opening of its new headquarters -- in Burlingame.

"California really invented the market, or forced the market, for hybrid technology and electric vehicles," Popple said. "It's attracted the kinds of companies that want to work on these technologies."

(c)2015 the San Francisco Chronicle

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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