Power bill gets green makeover in CA Senate

With almost no public attention, the California Legislature took a significant step yesterday (May 28) that could help corporations and universities make a complete transition to renewable energy. The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to approve SB 286 with a major amendment requiring that all power sold under the bill to be 100 percent renewable.

Overall, the bill would allow large electricity users to contract with independent power providers through the state’s Direct Access (DA) program, circumventing their local utilities, for an additional statewide total of 8,000 GWh of all-renewable power.

The bill now does exactly what I’ve worked with others to advocate — in a Sacramento Bee op-ed (co-authored with Greg Staple, my colleague at the American Clean Skies Foundation), in the halls of the State Capitol and on this blog.

The text of the amended bill isn’t out yet, and I will post it as soon as it’s available. But the staff analysis published online today summarized the new amendment this way: “Require that all additional DA service be from renewable sources as defined in the RPS (Renewable Portfolio Standard) program.”

What does this really mean? No, it isn’t a complete game-changer. But yes, it will be an important addition to the state’s overall strategy. Consider that the extra 8,000 GWh would lead to greenhouse gas reductions equivalent to a 2 percent rise in the RPS, while renewables now comprise about 24 percent of the statewide power mix. Democratic leaders will need all the help they can get to reach their new goal of 50 percent by 2030.

Yesterday’s decision reflects complex legislative maneuvering. The Appropriations vote moved the bill off the committee’s suspense file and sent it to the Senate floor for a full vote. The suspense file is essentially a legislative black hole, in which the fate of all bills in the file is decided by the Senate leadership before the meeting with zero transparency. It’s the proverbial smoke-filled back room. Whether this process is good or bad is not my point here. But the decision to drastically amend SB 286 suggests that the bill was carefully evaluated by the Committee chair, Sen. Ricardo Lara, and his close ally, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, according to its potential impact on de León’s top legislative priority this year: SB 350, his landmark bill on greenhouse gas emissions reduction. Their apparent conclusion was that any new Direct Access should give the maximum boost to SB 350 — i.e. by being all-renewable. The bill’s author, Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles), had no choice but to go along.

The switch to 100 percent marks a sharp turnaround for Hertzberg. He introduced SB 286 in February as a mostly brown-power bill, supported by a conventional brown-power alliance of industry groups that simply want cheap electricity with only the legal minimum of renewables. It was a largely Republican, pro-deregulation coalition very similar to the backers of the state’s big deregulatory leap in the late 1990s — which crash-landed in the power crisis of 2000-01. The additional power sold under the bill’s initial version would only have to comply with the state’s RPS, which currently mandates about 24 percent renewables. Then in early May, Hertzberg raised the bar to 51 percent renewables after he ran into opposition in the Senate Energy Committee. The new move to 100 percent risks alienating some of the bill’s industry supporters, some of whom quickly indicated that they are unhappy and may withdraw their backing.

So the bill’s politics have changed along with its substance. A much greener support coalition needs to be organized to help push the bill through the remaining Senate and Assembly votes and to persuade Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it. This effort will be a key test of California’s clean-energy companies as well as the environmental organizationsthat have doggedly pushed the state’s tech firms to go green. Until now, California firms that have seen the light on renewables have found it surprisingly hard to green their in-state power sources, as I have written here and here. But if the amended SB 286 can become law, these firms can become real drivers of the state’s clean-energy transition. They will be able to demonstrate their environmental leadership where it counts most — at home in California.