If Trump wants coal, he can have it. But California must commit to 100 percent clean energy

A SolarCity employee installs a solar panel on a home in Camarillo, Calif.
A SolarCity employee installs a solar panel on a home in Camarillo, Calif. New York Times

By most measures, California is way ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to fighting climate change. We have some of the strictest environmental regulations, more zero-emission cars on the road than any other state and, as of July, are four years ahead of our self-imposed goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels not seen since the 1990s.

But if this week has proven anything, it’s that now is not the time to rest on our laurels.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration rolled out an incredibly idiotic plan to undermine even more Obama-era pollution restrictions, this time on coal-fired power plants. Instead of the tough regulations under the Clean Power Act, which forced utilities to start switching to solar, wind, geothermal and other sources of renewable energy to light up the power grid, Trump’s new Affordable Clean Energy plan would let utilities go back to burning dirty coal in states that have no interest in restricting carbon emissions.

States like West Virginia. “We are putting our great coal miners back to work,” the president told cheering supporters there on Tuesday evening.

Predictably, the reaction from Gov. Jerry Brown was fiery; a “declaration of war against America and all of humanity,” is what he called it. And Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he was considering filing yet another lawsuit against the Trump administration.

Legal threats and tough talk are fine. But, with Senate Bill 100, California can do a lot more to double down on its climate agenda.

The bill, which is up for a vote in the Assembly as early as Monday, would set a new target of having 100 percent of the state’s electricity come from renewable, carbon-free energy sources by 2045. It also would move up a related benchmark by four years, so 50 percent of California’s electricity would come from green sources by 2026 and 60 percent by 2030.

It’s worth reiterating that these are targets with wiggle room, not set-in-stone requirements that must be followed at all costs. That should help ease the concerns from agriculture groups, utility companies and small businesses, many of which have come out against the bill, citing potential rate increases and higher overhead costs.

But to shy away from SB 100 and its goal of achieving 100 percent renewable energy for electricity would be cowardly of California. It’s what Sen. Kevin de León, the Los Angeles Democrat who authored the bill, calls “low hanging fruit.”

While California has historically had a tough time reducing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks — still the single biggest source in the state, tracking near 40 percent — the power grid has been another story.

In the past 15 years, utilities have nearly tripled their use of renewable sources to generate electricity, beating state legislators’ expectations for how fast the move away from fossil fuels would happen, and how fast new technology would be developed and deployed. Today, about 100,000 Californians now have jobs in the solar industry alone, according to the state’s Solar Energy Industry Association.

Trump, of course, wants to reverse all of this in a fruitless, hyper-partisan attempt to end the “war on coal.” He seems oblivious to the fact that the industry is on its death bed. Between 2010 and 2018, almost 40 percent of coal-fired power plants shut down or announced plans to shut down, according to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. And as recently as 2016, coal production was at the lowest annual level since 1979.

It also apparently doesn’t matter to Trump that 1,400 more Americans are likely to die every year from breathing in harmful particulates, according to his own Environmental Protection Agency, and that public health costs are likely to skyrocket with an uptick of lung and heart disease.

But the president’s stubbornness should serve as a warning for supporters of Assembly Bill 813, which would create a regional energy market with more than a dozen other Western states. It’s not a new idea, but it has taken on more urgency, as Brown, in his waning days as governor, has made the bill a priority.

It shouldn’t be. Legislators should delay consideration of this bill until next year.

While supporters see AB 813 as a way to make the distribution of electricity cheaper and more efficient, allowing California to sell solar and wind energy to neighboring states, it also would require California to give up control of its power grid, setting off a potential string of unintended consequences that are too difficult to responsibly assess in the final days of the legislative session.

Any deal on a new regional energy market would have to be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. And such a market would mean neighboring states, such as Wyoming and Utah, emboldened by Trump’s love of coal, could end up shipping electricity generated from fossil fuels to California customers.

There are far better ways to ensure California continues on the path to fighting climate change. The Legislature should start by passing SB 100.