Energy: California pushes innovation

by Judy Ferro

Idaho ranks fourth in the nation—behind Vermont, Washington, and North Dakota—for the percent of its electricity generated by renewable resources. That’s largely due to the dams along the Snake and Boise Rivers that generate 60% of our electricity. Wind power and wood waste each add an additional 12-14%.   Geothermal and biomass bring the total up to 84%.

When countries around the world seek to study renewables, however, they are more apt to head to California which ranks ninth with a measly 30% of its electricity from renewable sources.

Why? For one thing, hydroelectric development requires a river, land available for flooding, and mountains to limit the area inundated. Most available sites are already producing. For another, California is enough larger that its 30% is actually 15 times as many megawatts as Idaho produces.

According to an article by Gabriel Kahn in in the March-April issue of Mother Jones, what really makes California stand out, however, is that between 2003 and 2013 its gross domestic product increased 17% while its greenhouse gas emissions declined 5.5%. That makes the Golden State the exception to the rule that more population and more production lead to more pollution. People want to know how California did it.

All that L.A. smog decades ago made Californians very aware of air quality. Recent droughts and wildfires have increased public interest—even 51% of the state’s Republicans want programs to combat global warming. Republican Governors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as well as Democrats Gray Davis and Jerry Brown, initiated programs, and industry responded. Kahn reports that California now has the “nation’s largest wind farm and the largest solar thermal plant.”

Perhaps more important: “California has attracted more venture capital investment for clean-energy technologies than the European Union and China combined.”

Can you imagine money flowing in like that? Companies—including ones from Spain, France and America—have spent $28 billion developing wind energy in Kern County alone.

According to Kahn, Governor Jerry Brown sees strong government as the driving force behind the improvements. Industry on its own, Brown says, can be complacent. He believes that government regulation encourages, rather than impedes, innovation.

For instance, cell phone companies failed to adopt a new, more efficient battery charging system that cost just 50 cents more until the State required it. Now, according to California’s Energy Commission, that innovation saves the state’s consumers about $300 million a year in electricity charges.

And California is willing to use both carrot and stick to bring change. After a 2002 law requiring utilities to get 20 percent of their power from renewable sources within 15 years, growth of solar setups remained languid. So the state passed a $3.3 billion dollar subsidy program. Increased demand led to greater efficiency in production; the cost of solar panels had halved by the time the subsidy expired.

As California continues to pressure utilities for more renewable energy, Tesla is planning a mega-factory that will halve the cost of its Powerwall, a battery big enough to handle the energy needs of a standard home for an evening.

It’s hard to argue that California’s drive for renewable energy is not pushing innovation when patents issued to Californians for energy storage and energy efficiency increased over 40% between 2013 and 2014.

The next big innovations the State is hoping to see is in cars and trucks. The Air Resources Board has set the goal: by 2030 only zero-emissions vehicles may be sold in California.       The auto industry has experimented with electrical cars and hybrids for some time. California is now saying it is time to get serious.

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