Can California Actually Get 'Greener'?

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California may be the greenest state in the nation. The Golden State's renewable portfolio standard is among the nation's most aggressive, the state's cap-and-trade program is likely the most developed, and each legislative session lawmakers grapple over dozens of new environmental-based bills. In some cases environmental protection is the rationale to pass bills that will only have a minimal impact at best (for instance, plastic bag bans), but then legislators exist to create laws. So it didn't come as any surprise that during his 4th (and final) State of the State address, Jerry Brown focused heavily on taking California's already aggressive climate change action to the next level.

In about two weeks the Hoover Institution will be unveiling its new bi-monthly Eureka publication, which will feature commentary on a policy topic every other month. The inaugural issue examines Brown's three proposed climate change actions: 1) increase the renewable electricity mandate to 50% by 2030, 2) reduced vehicle petroleum use by 50%, and 3) double the energy efficiency of California's buildings. What remains, however, is how difficult it will be for the Golden State to get greener.

Renewable Mandate: Currently, California's electrical utilities must increase the percentage of electricity coming from eligible renewable sources to 33% by 2020. The eligible sources include solar thermal and photovoltaics, wind, biomass, geothermal, even tidal and wave energy, but exclude non-carbon energy sources like nuclear power and large hydro-electric generation. The allowed renewables made up approximately 20% of California's in-state electrical generation in 2013, but if nuclear and large hydro-electric were allowed, that level would have doubled. The main problem with increasing the eligible renewable percentage is that these energy sources are intermittent - their power generation cannot be controlled to match electricity demand. This puts immense pressure on the grid to maintain consistent power. Increasing the mandate to 50% only exacerbates this problem. Until there is a cost-effective way to store excess renewable generation (or a willingness to allow nuclear and large hydro-electric), this is a puzzle that California's electrical grid has yet to solve.

Petroleum Mandate: The biggest problem facing Brown's petroleum use proposal is time. The average American car is 11.4 years old - up from 10.6 in 2010, 9.6 in 2002, and 8.4 in 1995. This means that even if all Californians shopping for a new vehicle today bought an electric car, conventional gas vehicles would still be on California's roads for a decade or more. And while California accounts for about 40% of national electric vehicle sales, they only account for around 3% of California light-duty vehicle registrations in 2014. Like any new technology, it will take time for the average consumer to feel a) the need to purchase such a vehicle and b) comfortable the vehicle will suit their budget and daily lifestyle. Sacramento can only hope to make these vehicles more appealing, either through subsidies - that, for the most part, are benefiting either those who would purchase the cars regardless of the subsidy or those in higher income brackets - or increasing the price of gas. Californians love their cars and don't like it when politicians get in between them and their vehicles.

Building Efficiency Mandate: This proposal is the most straightforward, but also may be the most difficult to achieve. Here's why: California is already the national leader - coincidently, since Jerry Brown was first Governor - in energy conservation. Conserving more would be akin to squeezing out more lemon juice from an already squeezed lemon: you'll get a little, but not that much. Californians use approximately the same amount of energy they did 40 years ago as the rest of the nation has increased its use by roughly half. This is despite California's population and economic output steadily increasing. California's Mediterranean-like climate helps reduce energy use, but that can't explain the full difference. Here's where the paradox comes in, however. We know how to get to the next step: technology. Smart metering enables consumers and providers to better understand their behavior to encourage conservation; new lighting technology and new advances in heating and cooling systems better reduce waste. But even with new technology, doubling efficiency while California continues to grow and after California has already squeezed a lot out of consumers won't be easy.

The simple part has passed. Brown has announced his proposals and Senate President Pro Tem, Kevin de León, has introduced the legislative package to address the proposals. Now comes the gritty part: passage and implementation. Neither of the next steps is certain to be successful, so only time will tell if the Golden State becomes greener.

For a more in-depth look at these topics, keep your eye out for the March-April 2015 issue of Eureka at to be released on Monday, March 23.


Carson Bruno is the assistant dean for admission and program relations at the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. Follow him on Twitter @CarsonJFBruno.

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