California’s 2018 Climate Action Breakthrough

By John Addison

John Addison is the author of two books - Save Gas, Save the Planet that details the future of transportation and Revenue Rocket about technology partner strategy. CNET, Clean Fleet Report, and Meeting of the Minds have published over 300 of his articles. Prior to being a writer and speaker, he was in partner and sales management for technology companies such as Sun Microsystems. Follow John on Twitter @soaringcities.

Jan 10, 2019 | Governance, Resources | 3 comments

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Leaders of the world convened in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in October 2018. While there, they witnessed a state confronting the challenges of resilience and sustainability. Wildfires have raged in California every month for the past five years. The fires are a harbinger of a hotter world and a dryer West. California accepts that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are trapping heat and is implementing a plan to eliminate its emissions.

Leaders were greeted by Governor Brown who recently signed legislation requiring 100 percent of California electricity to be renewable by 2045, with 60 percent by 2030.

Of much greater ambition, he also signed an executive order that California would be carbon neutral by 2045. He went beyond electricity which is only 16 percent of California’s GHG emissions. The state is now planning to eliminate 100 percent of GHG from electricity, cooling, transportation, agriculture, everything. Becoming carbon neutral is not an easy task for 40 million people in an economy that is larger than India, than Russia, and now larger than the UK.

California’s cap-and-trade system makes major polluters pay for emissions. Opponents warned that this would destroy the state’s economy. Instead, since 2004, the California economy has grown 26 percent while reducing emissions 13 percent. Ronald Reagan’s Treasury Secretary James Baker and Secretary of State George Shultz think that California’s carbon cost is too low and that the U.S. should price carbon at $40 per ton. For California to be carbon neutral in 30 years, such pricing will be needed.

It was a busy week for me at the Global Summit as I shuttled between sessions by the US Green Building Council, urban think-tank SPUR, Seven Twenty Four, and the UC System. I got excited at the American Council of Renewable Energy hearing executives of major financial institutions describe their first $100 billion of loans and investments in solar and wind power and their goals for the next trillion dollars to be invested in U.S. solar and wind power by 2030.


From 32 Percent to 100 Percent Renewable Energy

California is ahead of other major economies in energy efficiency; renewables average 32 percent of its electricity. That will quickly grow to 60 percent thanks to storage, smart grids, and software that enables wind and solar power to be aggregated and delivered with the predictability of a central power plant.

California no longer has a coal power plant. Its last two nukes will be shuttered by 2024. Over 50 natural gas (methane) power plants are being replaced with solar + storage + big data + machine learning.

California will soon have over a million solar homes, thanks to solar being cheaper than utility electricity in many areas and new building codes requiring new homes to include solar starting in 2020.


Electrify Everything

A great way to take advantage of California’s abundant sun and wind is to electrify as much as possible. Electrification eliminates the need to pipe in natural gas (methane) for water heating, appliances, and cooking. From fracking to storage to piping to use, methane leaks trap 100 times the heat of CO2 over methane’s 16 year life in the atmosphere. Its emissions must be eliminated for California to become carbon neutral.

In California, millions of homes are already all-electric and over 800,000 have solar roofs. Electric heat pumps can accommodate all needs for water heating, air conditioning and heating. Starting in 2020, all new California homes will be required to be insulated, very efficient, all electric, and with solar roofs. By 2045, millions of zero-energy homes, government and commercial buildings will help the major cities of San Diego, San Francisco to dramatically lower their GHG emissions.

Homes and buildings will also be smart, timing their vehicle charging, heating of water and appliance use to time-of-use utility pricing and building solar output, leveling electricity supply and demand.


Electric Cars, Rail, Mobility

California’s executive order calls for five million electric vehicles on its road by 2030. Californians will use a mix of electric vehicle services include electric rail, electric buses, on-demand vehicles, and personal EVs. Out of U.C. Davis is a highly recommend book – Three Revolutions – that details the scenarios for our transition to mobility that is electric, automated, and shared.

When Los Angeles hosts the 2028 Olympics, most of the electricity will be from renewable energy. Visitors will use apps to seamlessly navigate between rail, electric buses, and electric autonomous ride sharing cars and shuttles. Los Angeles Metro commuter rail is all-electric and will be powered with renewables. The planned high-speed rail connecting LA with all of California will be 100 percent electric, 100 percent renewables. All 2,400 LA natural gas buses will be replaced with electric buses using renewable electricity. LA already has over 100,000 electric vehicles from cars to buses to trucks; annual growth is strong.

California’s largest city is not just shifting to renewables. It is using renewables for everything from buildings to mobility. California’s largest cities are also on track to reach their commitments to being 100 percent renewables including San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, and San Diego.


Carbon Neutral 2045

If you think that 2045 is a challenge, try 2025. The UC System includes over 400,000 students, faculty and staff. It plans to be carbon neutral by 2025. The UC Carbon Neutrality Initiative has already lead to progress in all ten UC campuses, five energy-demanding medical centers, and labs that require intensive cooling. Energy efficiency has already saved the UC System over $200 million. It is reinvesting the savings in new LEED Platinum buildings, energy-efficient health care, smart labs, and 80 MW of additional solar power in Fresno.

Thousands of students and staff at UC Davis live in West Village, an apartment complex where buildings are super insulated, all electric, and efficient. Solar power output is designed to meet annual electricity consumption. In reality, the complex is almost zero-energy. Students plug-in energy-hungry gaming systems, and their own mini-fridges for beer, and not trusting their room. Getting to carbon neutral will include hundreds of unplanned surprises.

Energy efficiency, solar, wind, storage, and software gives the state a path to reach 60 percent in ten to twelve years. Getting from 60 to 100 percent will be more difficult. It will require all vehicles to stop using gasoline and diesel, heating and cooling to stop using natural gas, agriculture to become carbon neutral, and heavy industry to reinvent processes.

Most California homes use natural gas (methane) for heating and cooling, hot water and cooking. From fracking to storage to use, methane leaks and traps 100 times of the heat of CO2 over its 16-year life. Yet, millions of California homes are all electric and a model for new homes in the state. A growing number of large corporate and government buildings have also avoided all use of methane, using innovative electric heat pumps, water chillers, and thermal storage to meet all needs.

Health care is one of these high-challenge areas, due to its demands for heating, cooling, and ultra-clean ventilation. Yet, my healthcare provider, Kaiser Permanente will be carbon neutral by 2020, thanks to efficiency everywhere. It recently added another 130MW of solar and 50MW of wind in PPAs with NextEra Energy that will include a massive 110MW of battery storage.

60 percent electricity is easy. 100 percent carbon neutral is hard. Air travel would not be transformed by more telework, shift to high-speed rail and carbon neutral fuels replacing existing jet fuel. California can only reach carbon neutrality with whole systems thinking. Waste is a major source of methane. There can be no more waste water with its methane leakage. Waste water will need to become recycled water, as it is done today in Orange County, California.

Landfills would need to be eliminated by a circular economy. In drought prone California, over 40 percent of water is used for raising cattle. The water is at deeply discounted prices. To be carbon neutral, California would need to price water to market and watch cattle ranching and dairy move to states with water.

California can be completely powered with wind, water, and solar (WWS) including all heating, mobility and industrial processes. Dr. Mark Jacobson has lead a team of engineers and scientists at Stanford and other leading universities to develop WWS models. You can see a cost-effective 100 percent WWS scenario for California at The Solutions Project. The scenario identifies the transition creating over 400,000 new jobs, saving over $120 billion in healthcare thanks to clean air and clean water, and requiring only 2.6 percent of California land.

The 40-million people of California are not only growing the world’s fifth largest economy, they are accelerating the transition to use 100 percent renewables in less than 30 years. Recent success, shows that reaching 60 percent renewables for energy will be achieved and an enormous win for slowing global warming, improving health, efficient economy. Beyond 60 percent, there are several paths to carbon neutrality. As in Robert Frost’s famous poem, California is likely to take the road less traveled and that will make all the difference.


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  1. Thanks John. Much appreciated overview with hope and vision! One concern– to really achieve carbon neutrality and to return to a safe climate globally, we will need to drawdown emissions, not just reduce GHG emissions. Healthy soils will play a key role in our ability to sequester carbon but also to replenish groundwater and store more water naturally when we do have precipitation, to sustain biodiversity, and protect ecosystem services that all life relies on. So thinking in a whole systems approach means we don’t get rid of the cattle and don’t we don’t get rid of crop production. Rather we manage regeneratively for multiple benefits for our urgent goal of carbon neutrality will not be achieved.

    • California has about two million cows that consume over 40 percent of the total water in the state. Their methane emissions are estimated at 200 million kilograms per year, trapping enough heat in the atmosphere to intensify wildfires and droughts. Yes, we need to improve the health of soils and globally plant billions of trees annually to sequester carbon, instead of destroying billions of trees annually.

  2. John:

    Is it cows on the range or cattle in feedlots that are the source of most methane emissions? Productive use and management of rangeland and forest is also a critical part of the whole systems approach. Today ranching is part of a strategy for fuel reduction helping to reduce wildfires. Grass fed beef are a far healthier source of protein than feedlot fattened cattle. Part of the whole systems strategy may well be a reduction in consumption of animal protein. We don’t all need to become vegan but we would all be far healthier if we ate less animal protein and better quality protein such as grass fed beef.


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