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Will wildfires derail California’s clean energy goals? Let’s get back on track

Gavin Newsom signs off on $26 billion plan to address wildfire threats

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill Friday to provide up to $26 billion to address wildfire threats. The proposal comes amid PG&E's bankruptcy and aims to give more certainty to victims. Some worry it won't do enough to prevent wildfires.
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California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill Friday to provide up to $26 billion to address wildfire threats. The proposal comes amid PG&E's bankruptcy and aims to give more certainty to victims. Some worry it won't do enough to prevent wildfires.

California is charting the course toward a clean energy future. Now, the state’s ability to achieve its climate goals could be derailed by a climate-driven disaster – the massive wildfires that have devastated communities across our state.

Wildfires have been increasing in number and intensity in California. Fifteen of the 20 most destructive wildfires in the state’s history have occurred since 2000. Tragically, thousands of homes have been destroyed and many lives lost.

Fires are also financially devastating for local communities and residents. Since 2017, more than 1,000 wildfire-related lawsuits have been filed against PG&E, totaling $30 billion in claims. This has financially crippled and put into bankruptcy California’s largest utility with other public and private utilities on the financial brink.

Opinion

Among the many victims of PG&E’s financial failure could be tens of thousands of Californians working in the renewable energy industry. It could also completely upend the clean energy commitments that have been instrumental to addressing climate-related, extreme weather events like wildfires.

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Last month, the judge presiding over PG&E’s bankruptcy proceedings ruled that the utility

may be allowed

to pull out of its contracts with renewable energy providers.

California’s leadership and commitment to action on climate change have attracted significant clean energy investment in our state. In fact, renewable energy projects have brought more than $70 billion in capital investments to California. And investments mean jobs.

Today, clean energy jobs employ more than half a million people across California. More than 60 percent of these jobs are involved in construction and manufacturing. Many are located in rural communities where good paying jobs and economic development are not easy to come by.

A driving force behind these clean energy investments are long-term power purchase agreements between renewable energy companies and utilities like PG&E. Developing large-scale solar and wind projects requires steadfast and long-term commitment. The stability that has come from these contracts has drawn cost-effective capital to the California market because it has made good business sense to invest here.

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While the investment to date has been substantial, California will have to do a lot more to reach its ambitious renewable energy and climate change targets. That means more investment in both renewable energy and the infrastructure required to maintain a reliable system. Future investment is at risk, though, if renewable energy contracts are abandoned in the PG&E bankruptcy.



If California makes the wrong move and steps away from its renewable energy agreements, financial investments and jobs in clean energy could dry up. A risky market undermines business confidence and hurts workers. In the interest of our environment, our economy and our future, we cannot let this happen.

With the Alliance for Climate Resistant California we’re working to bring together environmentalists, local government, renewable energy companies, labor and academics with the shared goal of ensuring California continues to lead in the fight against climate change and keeps its commitment to a carbon-free future.

The tragic wildfires that have caused death and destruction throughout California are exactly why achieving our climate goals is imperative to our future. As the governor and state lawmakers look to legislative solutions for victims and communities devastated by wildfire, we must not waver in our commitment to tackling climate change.

Robbie Hunter is president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council representing 450,000 construction workers, including 61,200 apprentices. Matt Cate is executive director of the Alliance for Climate Resistant California.

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