California to Take Up Crucial Clean Energy Reform in January

California’s legislature made significant clean energy progress in 2017, but one box will remain unchecked as it moves to September recess—enhancement and integration of the Western electric grid. By not authorizing changes in how the grid is managed, this session, lawmakers are delaying a prime opportunity to reduce utility bills, cut pollution and increase electric service reliability. And it wouldn’t have cost the taxpayers a dime. 

One-fourth of the nation’s electricity flows through the Western grid, a web of power lines that physically connect 14 western states, two Canadian provinces, and Northern Mexico. As this marvel of engineering evolved over the past century, transmission lines linked up but management became fragmented. Today, 38 separate bodies manage day-to-day grid operations. It’s a system that is rife with inefficiency, including an inability to make full use of California’s growing inventory of wind and solar power. The most comprehensive recent study puts the unnecessary costs to California consumers from this balkanized system at more than one billion dollars annually.

As part of the coalition Secure California’s Energy Future, NRDC has been working to support the creation of a single independent regional body to govern the Western transmission system. AB 813, by Assemblyman Chris Holden, would have authorized California’s main grid authority, the CAISO, to transition from a governor-appointed board to a fully independent board of a regional institution, which all western utilities and generators could join. An independent board is the norm for the nation’s six other regional transmission operators. 

However, Assemblyman Holden announced today that AB 813 would not move forward this year because “there is still more to discuss” on the issue. He said it likely will be revisited in the second half of California’s two-year session.

Why we need a fully integrated grid

With greater coordination, an independent Western grid operator would be able to draw cleaner, cost-effective electricity from across the region and send it where it is needed. This would still allow each state to control its own utilities and energy policies, and would reduce costs and improve reliability for electricity customers across the region.

For California in particular, an integrated grid will help grow California’s clean-tech sector and create well-paid jobs for working families. It would also maximize potential benefits from California’s booming clean energy generation, by creating access to a larger marketplace. Up to 80 percent of our state’s large-scale solar is threatened with periodic shutdowns because of a lack of access to buyers.

Moving toward a modern grid is a critical part of the transition to a cleaner energy future, and the California legislature plays a key role in making this happen. Our pollution-free solar and wind generation shouldn’t go to waste. Fortunately, we are only halfway through this two-year legislative session, and it’s not too late to pick up this issue again. The second half will bring a new opportunity for progress. 

About the Authors

Ralph Cavanagh

Codirector, Energy program

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