Achieving California’s goal of sustainable energy future

Not so long ago, the idea that renewable energy could be relied upon to power our electric grid was considered far-fetched and too expensive.

But having spent 40 years involved in the field, first as a legislative staffer and later as a lobbyist and consultant for environmental causes, I have witnessed a remarkable journey.

Yes, air pollution remains a problem, particularly in the Central Valley. But the air is far better than it once was. And in the past 10 years, renewable sources have gone from being a slice of green on the dirty fossil fuel grid to being cost competitive and more reliable than nuclear energy and coal, and catching up with natural gas.

The cost of wind and solar power has fallen, and performance has improved. Technology exists to store electricity and modulate the grid to coincide with demand. All of it opens a path to reliable, affordable, low-carbon energy with less vulnerability to imported fuel price spikes. All this opens the possibility to more jobs and tax revenue for the state.

But as Gov. Jerry Brown said in his inaugural address, achieving these goals will require creativity and innovation. California’s success in reducing pollution and transforming energy systems stems from our ability to adjust and recalibrate our policies as we gain experience, and as new technology comes along.

With the price of renewable energy continuing to fall, it makes sense to buy more. But as we achieve greater use, how all the pieces fit together will matter.

In the 1990s, when energy deregulation was in vogue, integrated planning was denigrated in favor the free-market notion of letting the market decide. To overcome market failures, the Legislature adopted mandates for renewables, rooftop solar, storage, energy efficiency and smaller sources of power.

Despite the innovation, regulators seemed to pay little attention to how the new energy sources fit together. Grid operators, the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Independent System Operator, which controls the electricity grid, focused on the system as if it did not include newer sources, but instead depended on natural gas plants as the backbone.

However, a recent study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found California could electrify transportation, surpass 50 percent renewables, create hundreds of thousands of new California jobs and achieve deep carbon reductions at less overall cost than a business-as-usual approach.

But minimizing greenhouse gas emissions and phasing out fossil fuel will require advance planning. Grid operators must start long-term, low-carbon planning now, and they must change long-standing habits of relying on combustion sources first. They must operate the system as a team of complementary resources, focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Most of the pieces needed to meet the governor’s renewable and greenhouse gas emission goals are in place, or close at hand, and the technologies are available at reasonable cost.

California will also need a diverse and balanced renewable energy portfolio, which takes advantage of the unique attributes of the resources we have, as well some high-quality, low-cost renewables in neighboring states. Expanding two-way trade with our neighbors will allow us to export renewables when needed and minimize curtailment, and the emerging regional energy market will help spread costs and variability.

Customers should be rewarded for shifting consumption into times of surplus and reducing consumption in times of shortage. Historically, this meant getting people to use power in the middle of the night. In the future, we will want to charge electric vehicles and make hydrogen for fuel cells in the middle of the day and turn down power when the sun goes down.

Strategic investments in bulk storage will allow us to park surplus renewable energy at times of shortage and provide flexibility to the grid without burning fossil fuels and polluting urban neighborhoods.

In his inaugural speech, Brown called for an increase by 50 percent in the use of renewable energy, a 50 percent reduction in petroleum demand and doubling building efficiency by 2030. Democrats have introduced a package of bills to implement Brown’s vision.

Skeptics can easily criticize such bold goals as too far-reaching and costly. But I have witnessed California adapting and achieving clean air goals that were derided as unattainable. We can succeed again and help show the world the path forward to an affordable, reliable and sustainable energy future.

V. John White is the executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento (