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Is California Still on Track to Meet Its Goal of 100% Clean Power by 2045?

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Solar panels and wind turbines in desert with mountains in the distance.
A solar and wind farm in Palm Springs that generates 100% renewable energy.  (Murat Taner/Getty Images)

California leaders have been busy of late making their climate case on the international conference circuit. State delegates are currently at the 28th Conference of Parties, or COP28, an international climate meeting held this year in Dubai, and many also attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, hosted in San Francisco last month.

The message from California’s leaders is that the state is achieving its ambitious climate goals while also growing its massive economy.

At a sustainable development forum at APEC last month, California Energy Commission Chair David Hochschild, the state’s top energy official, called the state “a postcard from the future” that will run “through electric wires, not through pipes.”

But serious challenges remain. California reports its emissions over the past two years have gone up when they should be going down.

“They need to be going down by about 15 or 16 million tons a year every year through 2030 for us to hit our minimum statutory target,” said Danny Cullenward, a senior fellow at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

That minimum 2030 target stipulates that statewide emissions drop below 40% of what they were in 1990.

Moreover, California does not include the harmful greenhouse gasses released from major wildfires in its emissions accounting. Researchers estimate that the state’s devastating 2020 wildfire year erased two decades’ worth of gains Californians have made in emission cuts.

KQED recently spoke with a handful of climate scientists to get their take on California’s energy trajectory. Most agreed that the state has a strong chance of delivering on its 100% clean power mandate by 2045, offering a bright spot in humanity’s race to eliminate the root causes of climate change: burning fossil fuels.

Below are different aspects of the clean energy transition that California leaders and outside experts consider crucial to effectively transitioning to a carbon-free system. Overall, they said, there was much to celebrate — like the meteoric rise of battery storage — as California races toward its energy targets.

Jump straight to:

Carbon-free electricity

Storage

Electric vehicles

Offshore wind

Environmental justice

Electricity prices

Carbon-free electricity

A large solar panel array, with a city skyline in the background.
Solar panels are mounted atop the roof of the Los Angeles Convention Center on Sept. 5, 2018, in Los Angeles. The solar array of 6,228 panels is expected to generate 3.4 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Where we are now: The energy pulsing through California’s grid is 60% clean and carbon-free overall, meaning it comes from renewable sources like solar and wind and zero-carbon sources like hydropower and nuclear. The state’s energy commission anticipates carbon-free energy will comprise two-thirds of retail sales in 2024.

“Alternative energy is the wrong word to use today to describe renewables,” Hochschild said at his APEC talk last month. They are not alternative because they comprise the majority of the state’s energy sources.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom set benchmarks for the state to reach 90% clean electricity by 2035 and 95% by 2040, moving toward California’s previously established goal of 100% by 2045. This means energy would come from renewable sources, like solar and wind and zero-carbon sources like nuclear.

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Recently, the California Public Utilities Commission approved plans to add 86,000 megawatts (PDF) of energy to the grid by 2035 to allow for more room as the state electrifies. That would more than double what is currently available.

What the experts are saying

Dan Kammen, UC Berkeley energy professor: The state has produced more than 100% of its energy from renewables for brief periods during the last few spring seasons. “Where California is today is remarkable,” he said.

Merrian Borgeson, California climate and clean energy policy director at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC): The state is moving in the right direction toward meeting these goals but faces challenges connecting all the new renewable projects to the grid. Those projects must submit an application to the state’s grid managers at the California Independent System Operator, known as CAISO, before connecting to the grid. And the approval queue is very backlogged.

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“California’s in this place where we don’t need new goals. We just need to implement like crazy,” Borgeson said.

James Bushnell, UC Davis energy economist: California is an incubator for climate ideas. As the state moves toward its goals, it can share lessons learned with other governments.

“The way I think about it is not in terms of make or break targets, but what we’re trying to do is rapidly expand zero-carbon energy and get a sense of what the implications and costs and challenges are,” Bushnell said.

The state’s progress in adding renewables to the grid in the last decade has been rapid, but currently, California is “bumping up against a bunch of different constraints” that may be transitory or signs that we’re “reaching a plateau where further reductions are just more difficult,” he said.

Ranjit Deshmukh, UC Santa Barbara environmental studies professor: California’s growth in clean energy is non-linear, and the state might have picked through the low-hanging fruit.

“As you get closer to that [100% clean energy] goal, it gets harder and harder to manage your system,” Deshmukh said, given the variability of wind and solar. “We have to introduce more energy storage to manage that variability and shift our generation to times when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind doesn’t blow. So the challenge is going to get harder and harder.”

Storage

A large outdoor battery-storage facility next to a power plant with a large smokestack.
Tesla Megapack batteries at the Elkhorn Battery Energy Storage System next to the Vistra Moss Landing natural gas-fired power plant in Moss Landing on California’s central coast. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Where we are now: The state’s ability to store energy through large-scale batteries has grown more than sevenfold in the past four years. The batteries can store enough energy to power 6.6 million homes for up to four hours and helped the state avert blackouts during a September 2022 10-day heat wave.

A charge showing the increase in California's energy storage resources between 2019 and 2023,What the experts are saying

NRDC’s Borgeson: Battery storage is one of the main resources needed to shut down fossil-fuel-powered plants, and storage must keep growing.

“The storage story has been really, really amazing,” Borgeson said.

UCSB’s Deshmukh: The costs of storage are dropping. “The question is how fast we put storage on the ground,” Deshmukh said.

If you install storage earlier, prices are higher, but adding the storage increases understanding of how to add storage and will help bring costs down. Ultimately, he said, we must remember that ratepayers will pay those costs.

UC Davis’ Bushnell: There is some resource competition, both in terms of materials and production capacity, as demand for electric-vehicle batteries and storage batteries both surge.

Electric vehicles

A white electric car getting charged.
An electric car charges at a mall parking lot on June 27, 2022, in Corte Madera, Marin County. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Where we are now: In 2018, 5% of California’s new vehicle sales were zero-emission vehicles. According to the state’s energy commission, that figure was 27% this month. California mandates that all new cars sold by 2035 be hybrid or electric.

“This is really indicative that EVs are going to win,” Hochschild of the state’s Energy Commission said. California’s current top-selling car is electric: a Tesla.

What the experts are saying

NRDC’s Borgeson: Californians are buoyed by the state goal to get off internal combustion vehicles. But, Borgeson said, “People are buying them because the cars are working for people in their daily lives.”

UC Berkeley’s Kammen: California’s 2035 goal is too lax.

“We should be moving that date forward, that looks way too conservative now. That number should be 2030. I would argue we could do it in 2028,” Kammen said.

UCSB’s Deshmukh: Increased EV sales will lead to emissions reductions. “But there’s evidence that people use EVs as their secondary vehicles, and they still keep gasoline cars for the long drives,” Deshmukh said.

As EVs get better and even more popular, California must keep pace by growing public-charging infrastructure. “If folks start thinking that public charging is going to be a constraint, vehicles won’t grow as quickly as we hope they would,” Deshmukh said.

Offshore wind

Wind turbines at sea.
Wind turbines generate electricity at the Block Island Wind Farm, the first commercial offshore wind farm in the United States, on July 7, 2022, near Block Island, Rhode Island. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Where we are now: California’s goals partly depend on producing 25 gigawatts of electricity by 2045 from offshore wind. That would be enough energy to power 25 million homes. Officials plan to install floating wind turbines in two locations: one off Humboldt Bay in Northern California and another near Morro Bay off the state’s central coast. The federal government auctioned off 583 square miles of ocean waters for the job.

What the experts are saying

UC Berkeley’s Kammen: “We’re way behind on building offshore wind,” Kammen said. He called the resource the “ultimate battery” because it is available when solar and onshore wind are often unavailable and can be used to make hydrogen, which can store energy later.

NRDC’s Borgeson: “The goals that the state has set are directionally right and very, very aggressive, appropriately so,” Borgeson said. “The state has been setting all the right signals for offshore wind to be viable in California.”

UCSB’s Deshmukh: “Offshore wind progress is always slow because just to get the industry off the ground requires a lot of effort and investment,” Deshmukh said. It requires building infrastructure like ports, specialized vessels and transmission lines.

Environmental justice

A man in a hard hat installs solar panels on the roof of a house.
Andrew Hayes, with Grid Alternatives, helps install solar panels on the roof of a home in a lower-income neighborhood in Vallejo, Solano County, on Feb. 13, 2018. (Lauren Hanussak/KQED)

Where we are now: California’s landmark environmental justice law, AB 617, is intended to clear up dirty air for Richmond, West Oakland and other industrial communities across the state, in part through the use of clean energy.

The law has been heralded by some as groundbreaking and derided by others as toothless. Experts say it’s unclear if it is working.

The state also has other initiatives, like those aimed at bringing EV charging to lower-income and disadvantaged communities.

However, many experts and advocates feel the state is failing to meet environmental justice goals.

What the experts are saying

UC Berkeley’s Kammen: The state should be installing solar and storage on affordable housing and co-locating transit hubs where people with lower-income live, he said. “We are way behind on environmental justice.”

UCSB’s Deshmukh: As California decarbonizes, we have to make sure disadvantaged and minority communities receive their fair share of benefits “whether they are health benefits from reduced air pollution by retiring fossil fuel plants, or receiving incentives for clean energy technologies, or the share of jobs in the clean energy technologies,” Deshmukh said.

The state must also work to make sure lower-income and minority communities are not unfairly burdened by increases in costs for both electricity or natural gas, especially as the state works to cut natural gas from our energy mix.

Electricity prices

A utility meter.
A PG&E electricity meter on a residential building in Berkeley on April 26, 2023. (Kori Suzuki/KQED)

Where we are now: Californians pay one of the highest retail electricity rates in the United States. That’s a problem for a state pushing people to go all-electric.

What the experts are saying

UC Davis’ Bushnell: “Electricity prices are extremely high in California,” Bushnell said, which puts a headwind in front of California’s momentum on everything from transportation to home electricity.

NRDC’s Borgeson: It’s much cheaper to power things with clean power than customers’ current rates. “This really, really, really vital price signal is currently, in my view, wrong,” she said. The state should be focusing on how to change this.

UCSB’s Deshmukh: How the state achieves clean electricity in a cost-effective way to ratepayers is crucial, especially given other considerations like conservation.

While solar farms in the desert may provide less expensive energy, they can hurt the plants and animals that live there. Putting solar panels on the built environment decreases this drawback but is more expensive.

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