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California strives toward 'carbon neutrality'

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Charly Hultén ‒ WISE Sweden

On September 10, California Governor Jerry Brown announced a plan that raises the state's level of ambition with regard to its carbon footprint. The announcement came on the eve of a Global Climate Action Summit, a conference held in San Francisco and hosted by the Governor, to showcase 'best policies' to address the threats of climate change in regions and communities around the world.

In part, the plan follows guidelines for sourcing of the energy supply set out in (State) Senate Bill 100, a draft of which cleared the Senate in August. SB-100 was controversial ‒ most Republicans opposed it, Democrats supported it. The opposition included powerful agricultural interests and the state's major privately owned utilities. On the other hand, luminaries like ex-California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (Republican) and former US Vice-President Al Gore urged its passage.

California had an ambitious climate policy even before the announcement. A Climate Scoping Plan adopted in 2017 charts the way toward the goal that all electricity sold to, or generated by, public and private users in the state should be from "renewables" by 2050. The new bill and executive order move the deadline forward, to 2045. Progress will be assessed at three checkpoints, with specified target shares of retail sales of "zero-carbon" electricity for each. The checkpoints set the pace of reform for public utilities and other energy providers in the state.

The Governor's executive order, however, takes a giant step further. Not only will electricity in the state be carbon-free "as soon as possible, but no later than 2045", the entire Californian economy will be "carbon neutral". That means that Californians will remove at least as much carbon from the atmosphere as they add to it. As stated in the Governor's order: "The achievement of carbon neutrality will require both significant reductions in carbon pollution and removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, including sequestration in forests, soils, and other natural landscapes." A truly ambitious goal.

Naturally, there are doubters.

Rich in energy resources, but ...

California, the most populous state of the Union and the fifth-largest economy in the world, uses quite a lot of energy and has a heavy climate footprint.

The California Energy Commission estimates that 32% of retail energy sales are generated from renewable sources today. Renewables are notoriously variable, but one sunny day this past June solar panels alone produced nearly half the state's electricity.

California also has the benefit of both geothermal (north of San Francisco; covering 6% of energy needs) and large-scale hydroelectric power to fill the gaps, albeit protracted drought in recent years has made even hydro something of a 'variable', too. For these reasons, increasing the efficiency of electricity storage media and upgrading the state's transmission grid system are key to achieving the plan's goals. Both are the object of high priority R&D programs started in the past few years.

The Executive Order sets out other principal climate policy measures:

  • "Requiring significant reductions of destructive super pollutants including black carbon and methane;
  • Supporting clean transportation to reduce petroleum use 45 per cent by 2045;
  • Setting a goal of 5 million zero emission vehicles by 2030;
  • Proposing to double the reduction in the carbon intensity of fuels by 2030;
  • Moving the state to 100 percent clean energy by 2045;
  • Requiring the state to double the rate of energy efficiency savings in buildings;
  • Extending and improving the state's cap-and-trade program;
  • Directing cap-and-trade funds to greenhouse gas reducing programs which benefit disadvantaged communities;
  • Developing a Forest Carbon Plan to better manage California's forest land."

Will nuclear power play any part in this?

'Renewable', 'zero-emissions', 'carbon-neutral'. The terms are used interchangeably – in daily parlance and, significantly, in the Governor's announcement. In an interview with MIT Technology Review, Jane Long at Livermore National Laboratories points out the importance of a slight change of wording in SB-100, compared to previous documents on the issue. The bill uses 'zero carbon' and 'zero emissions' as the criterion. The State of California has explicitly excluded nuclear power from its definition of renewable power resources, but nuclear power does qualify as a "zero-emission" resource in US usage. As noted above, the target is "carbon neutrality" for the state in 2045, a term that neatly skirts the lexical issue. Other than the ban on carbon emissions, there are no specifics as to how Californians will go about reaching that target.

Long term, the likelihood that any nuclear power in the mix would be generated in California is small. California has only two remaining nuclear power reactors, both at Diablo Canyon in San Luis Obispo County (on the south-central coast). Today, the plant supplies about 8‒9% of the state's electricity, but in 2016 the operator PG&E announced plans to take the reactors offline in 2024 and 2025, before they become too much of an "economic liability", as the company put it. In January 2018, the Public Utilities Commission gave its unanimous approval.

PG&E cited changes in the California power supply and demand – notably the growth of renewables and greater energy efficiency. The emergence of community choice aggregators in many communities was a third concern. The head of PG&E's electricity division stressed the company's willingness and preparedness to adapt to these new trends. In sum, nuclear 'new build' appears to be out of the question.

California regularly imports electricity from a number of western states in the US. SB-100 prohibits reliance on electricity from any source that adds to carbon emissions, whether inside or outside the state. But, pending further clarification, the possibility that out-of-state nuclear facilities might be called upon cannot be ruled out.

'America' is greater than Donald Trump

California's climate policy has been described as "a symbolic strike against the Trump administration". Donald Trump has made headlines worldwide for his refusal to acknowledge the problems climate-altering emissions pose, a position which led him to take the US out of the 2015 Paris Agreement and to do what he can to promote both 'fracking' to extract fossil gas and a revival of coal mining in the country.

Mr. Trump may be the chief executive, but he is hardly representative of the US as a whole. A majority of states, 28 of the 50, have adopted climate policies that conform with the Paris accord – or better.


Executive Order to Achieve Carbon Neutrality:

Senate Bill 100:

Camila Domonoske, 10 Sept 2018, California sets goal of 100 percent clean electric power by 2045. NPR 24 Hour Program Stream,

Community choice aggregators:

Rob Nikolewski in San Diego Union Tribune: Nuclear power receives its death sentence in California (11 Jan 2018); Will natural gas go up when Diablo goes down? (11 Jan 2018); More setbacks for the nuclear power industry (3 Aug 2017).

Dana Nuccitelli, 17 Sept 2018, 'California plans to show the world how to meet the Paris climate target',

James Temple, 28 Aug 2018, 'California advances an ambitious climate policy that should be a model for the world'. MIT Technology Review,