CA’s Carbon-Free Electricity Goal Needs Bold Action Now

A new report released by California’s energy agencies says we could reach zero-carbon electricity by 2045, which is great news for the state’s climate goals. But bold action will be needed to achieve that milestone.

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A new report released by California’s energy agencies says we could reach zero-carbon electricity by 2045, which is great news for the state’s climate goals. But bold action will be needed to achieve that milestone.


According to the report, California must build more renewable energy and at a much faster rate (eight times faster!) than it has done so far in order to have pollution-free electricity running our homes, businesses, and vehicles by 2045. In addition, investment in diverse energy resources and better managing electric demand—through energy efficiency and demand response—are key strategies to make this clean energy transition more cost-effective.

To set these actions into motion, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) should now set appropriately aggressive carbon-reduction goals for 2030 and put the state on the path toward zero-carbon electricity by 2045.

We Need to Build More and Build Smart

California’s Senate Bill 100 (SB 100) established the goal of getting to zero-carbon electricity by 2045. It also required the energy agencies to issue a report by early 2021, with updates every four years thereafter that includes information relating to the implementation of the policy goal. The report, released in March 15, 2021, is the initial step in evaluating the challenges and opportunities in achieving zero-carbon electricity.

The report’s first major finding is that getting to zero-carbon electricity by 2045 is technically feasible and affordable. The cost of getting there is only 6 percent more than the price of meeting our current renewable portfolio standard (RPS) mandate—the RPS requires 60 percent of our electricity needs to be generated from renewable resources like wind and solar by 2030.

The second major finding is that we need to increase the rate of how much utility-scale solar and wind generation we bring online each year by threefold, and battery storage by eightfold. This means that California agencies need to streamline regulatory and permitting processes; develop a trained workforce to install, operate, and maintain these renewable resources; and support the necessary supply-chain infrastructure to get these renewable resources built and ready to operate. Doing so will create many green jobs and help revitalize California’s pandemic-ravaged economy.

The report’s third major finding is that this transition to zero-carbon electricity can be made more affordable through resource diversity and by better managing electricity demand. Resource diversity, which means investing in resources such as offshore wind that complement on-shore wind and solar, is more cost-effective because these complementary resources could produce electricity at times when the sun doesn’t shine and the on-shore wind doesn’t blow—i.e., we won’t have to over-build on-shore wind, solar, and energy storage to meet our electricity needs. Load flexibility, which means better managing electric demand through cost-effective energy efficiency and demand response, can also further reduce costs by reducing the need for power plants, large solar farms, and storage.

The CPUC Needs to Pick an Aggressive 2030 Clean Energy Target  

The report makes it clear that we have no time to lose if we want to achieve California’s objective to avert the worst of the climate emergency. The CPUC needs to set interim goals for carbon reduction by 2030 through its Integrated Resources Planning process that sets us on the path to get to zero-carbon electricity by 2045. To do so, the CPUC must adopt a lower carbon emissions target than it currently has; the CPUC’s current emissions cap of 46 million metric tons (MMT) is not sufficient. The CPUC should pick a target of capping pollution at 38 MMT by 2030 as we explain here and here. The California Energy Commission, which oversees the California’s Publicly Owned Utilities IRP process, should encourage them to achieve an appropriate 2030 emissions reduction target as well.

To get to our SB 100 goals of zero-carbon electricity by 2045, we also need to start planning now for resources that take a longer lead time to become operational, such as offshore wind. Bringing these resources online in time to meet our carbon reduction goals will require overcoming multiple barriers, including building new transmission infrastructure. And we should do it as soon as possible because planning, siting, and building transmission lines in an environmentally responsible manner can easily take five to ten years.

The Joint Agencies Report is the first step in an ongoing effort to evaluate and plan for zero-carbon electricity. Future research by California’s energy agencies will further examine the following issues: (1) how to keep electricity reliable while making this clean energy transition; (2) how emerging technologies and innovation can further help achieve our decarbonization goals; (3) land use and environmental impacts of building large scale renewables; (4) and important non-energy benefits, such as improvement in health due to cleaner air, that accrue from reducing fossil generation. Until then, the CPUC should set interim carbon reduction targets for 2030 that set us on the path to avert the worst of the climate crisis through eliminating carbon emissions from our economy.

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