Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Can California turn the West green?

In this 2006 file photo, a coal train travels in northeast Wyoming near Gillette.
In this 2006 file photo, a coal train travels in northeast Wyoming near Gillette. AP

California’s leaders quickly saluted last week when President Barack Obama released his Clean Power Plan, a 1,500-page proposal that would dramatically reduce the nation’s dependence on coal.

We’re already there, or at least we think we are.

At the Legislature’s urging, California’s private utilities have weaned themselves from coal, and public power agencies are ending their contracts with out-of-state coal plants.

“I welcome this bold and absolutely necessary carbon reduction plan,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement.

That Brown would praise Obama’s plan is no surprise. This is, after all, the land of cap-and-trade and the heartfelt desire to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent within 15 years.

Nor did Gov. Matt Mead of Wyoming shock anyone when he called Obama’s Clean Power Plan “scientifically flawed” and warned “it is in fact damaging – not just to Wyoming, but the nation.”

Wyoming is the nation’s largest coal-mining state, responsible for 39 percent of the coal supply. At Mead’s urging, Wyoming is one of 16 states preparing to sue to block Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

And yet the authorities who run the California Independent System Operator, the Folsom-based entity that manages this state’s electricity transmission, are contemplating entering into a joint venture with PacifiCorp, the Portland, Ore.-based utility that supplies electricity to 1.8 million customers in Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Washington and Oregon.

The proposal offers promises, but raises questions, too. California could lose a measure of independence. So could the other states. Oregon and Washington, blue states that they are, are fine with green energy. But Wyoming, Idaho and Utah are deep red states with voters who are contemptuous of Obama, and the energy policies advocated by him and, for that matter, Jerry Brown.

First, the upside. As California expands its renewable energy production, the state will have surpluses. By becoming part of a Western regional electricity grid, California could seamlessly wheel green power to the other states, helping them reduce their dependence on coal and other fossil fuels.

Next, a complicating factor: Electrons flow both ways. California would export electricity produced by the heavenly sun. But wouldn’t Mead send us electrons that are the devilish spawn of coal?

It won’t happen, say representatives of PacifiCorp and the California Independent System Operator. Because of California’s cap-and-trade program, the state Air Resources Board imposes fees on greenhouse gas producers. Because coal is a major greenhouse gas emitter, coal-produced electricity would be too costly in California.

“Coal is at a significant disadvantage,” said Phil Pettingill, the Cal-ISO official who oversees regional integration.

PacifiCorp mines and burns coal – lots of it. On its website, PacifiCorp says “coal is a valuable resource and fuels 58 percent of the electricity produced by PacifiCorp’s owned generating plants.” All that energy has to go somewhere. If California doesn’t use it, presumably red states would.

None of this is lost on Senate President pro tem Kevin de León, the author of pending legislation, Senate Bill 350, to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“Regional energy markets can be a good thing if they don’t weaken California’s clean power program,” de León said. “It cannot – cannot – weaken our strong energy policies so that all of sudden we’re getting dirty coal. … I’ll be watching like a hawk.”

De León is carrying another bill, SB 185, to force the state’s massive public employee pension funds, the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, to sell off their coal stocks.

The divestment bill is aimed at a handful of companies devoted to coal mining. PacifiCorp is not a target. Warren Buffett’s energy subsidiary, Berkshire Hathaway Energy, owns PacifiCorp, and its holdings extend far beyond coal.

PacifiCorp is pledging to shutter 14 coal plants, representing half its generation, by 2034. Its chief executive, Gregory Abel, was at the White House standing with Obama when the president announced the Clean Power Plan.

“We have long been on a path to reduce carbon emissions,” said Patrick Reiten, the president of PacifiCorp’s transmission operation, who makes regular trips to Sacramento to help bring about the venture with Cal-ISO. It won’t be easy.

Any joint venture likely would require legislation to restructure the California Independent System Operator’s governing board. As it is, the governor appoints the five-member Cal-ISO board, with Senate oversight.

What the new board might look like is to be determined. But would Wyoming, Utah and Idaho want to be without representation? Would California cede power to the nation’s largest coal-producing state?

These are questions worth keeping in mind as our energy policy sorts itself out in this climate-change era. As it strives to end reliance on fossil fuel, will California help turn the rest of the West green? Or will the Golden State end up being dusted with coal ash?

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