Following a leak in a steam tube that led to safety concerns, the troubled San Onofre nuclear power plant in Southern California was shut down for good. Meanwhile, construction of the nation’s largest desalination plant in San Diego is underway and the state is setting records for solar power feeding into the electricity grid.
More electric vehicles are on the road and the California Energy Commission recently opened up a $6-million competitive grant for increasing electric vehicle infrastructure in the state.
But fracking is still on the agenda and California stands as a potential model when it comes to environmental policy.
“Everybody’s watching what we’re doing here in California, and it’s both an exciting and challenging time, I think,” said Andrew McAllister, a commissioner with the California Energy Commission.
The state underwent its first year of the California Air and Resource Board’s cap-and-trade market, which will be expanding in 2014.
“If it’s successful in California, I think that it’ll be a model that other countries are interested in,” said Amy Myers Jaffe, Executive Director of Energy and Sustainability at UC Davis.
Lauren Faber, West Coast Political Director of the Environmental Defense Fund, was optimistic about the success of the cap-and-trade market. For the first time, businesses are facing an explicit cost for emissions and making decisions about pumping out pollution.
“The program has been functioning,” Faber said. “The sky has not fallen.”
When asked about California’s energy headlines of 2013, KQED Science editor Craig Miller replied, “Fracking, fracking and fracking – I guess I would go with those three.”
“Fear of fracking is rampant,” Miller said.
But fracking can’t be eliminated without other transitional options. The bottom line is, we all have vehicles that run mostly on oil-based fuel, Jaffe said.
“I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘Are there places in the state where we just don’t want to have drilling?’ ” Jaffe said, referencing the decision not to drill in places connected to the water table in New York. “I think we really need to be wise.”
Jaffe, who previously lived in Texas, discussed the importance of having environmental regulations when it comes to drilling for oil and natural gas.
“We have this idea in this country that it’s OK to have poor air quality for children growing up in Houston and that it’s OK to have water get contaminated in Texas…because it’s in Texas,” Jaffe said. “For those of us who raised their children in Texas and had to deal with asthma and had to deal with other consequences, it’s not OK for 250 million cars to drive around the United States, leaving all the pollution in Texas.”
Jaffe’s research spans oil and natural gas geopolitics, strategic energy policy and energy economics.
The speakers discussed the need to switch to renewable energy, Tesla as a symbol for electric car technology, and the likelihood of options like hydrogen-powered cars, which could be a great alternative to burning fossil fuels. But infrastructure is one of the main challenges.
“How do you integrate these cars into the grid?” Faber asked.
Faber stressed the need to address far-off future emissions today.
“Not only are we discussing how we replace lost capacity from the nuclear generating station, but if we really are going to support an increase in plug-in electric vehicles,” Faber said. “This is going to be a very exciting year for that, but it requires the utilities, for example, to really be thinking about new business models.”
Although California has set a high bar by creating emissions standards for the future and it’s on track to meet 2020 goals, no one knows if the state will be able to meet its 2050 goals, Miller said.
“Even the Air Board has come out recently and said, ‘We have no idea how to make policy for 2050, it’s just too far away,’ ” according to Miller.
Scaling alternatives and renewables is a huge obstacle, but McAllister was optimistic about the Air Resources Board’s ability to implement AB32, California’s main climate law.
“We’re not in the business of picking the winners, we’re in the business of enabling the marketplace,” McAllister said. “We have a bunch of eggs and we have a bunch of baskets, and that’s not a bad place to be at this moment.”
He discussed the Pacific Coast Collaborative and the importance of showing political cooperation on climate action. On Oct. 28, 2013, the leaders of British Columbia, California, Oregon and Washington committed to combatting climate change and promoting clean energy in the region of 53 million people.
“Part of this is a response to lack of federal leadership,” McAllister said. “We’re having to go down this route because there’s not a federal climate policy.”
Jaffe also shared her opinion of federal leadership: “I think the president’s climate plan is pretty weak,” she said.
While people in California may be willing to put up with a high level of inconvenience because they have a commitment to environmental causes, that’s not the norm around the U.S., and “there’s this messaging that comes out of Washington that’s not helpful,” Jaffe said.
“This pattern where we decide that there’s some competition between jobs and environmental protection – this is a stupid idea,” Jaffe said. “We need to get out of this competitive political framework where somehow the social good is anti-jobs.”
They discussed how water shortages will lead to increased electricity prices and Jaffe said that as climate change worsens over time, it’s going to cause change in the political climate, especially in the wake of natural disasters.
“The need for a resilient fuel system is what’s going to get us to the right kind of climate legislation.”
But messaging may be the key to establishing social norms.
“It is you and the social relation that you have with you neighbor when you go over for dinner, or whatever it is, that helps change the culture and evolve us in that direction,” McAllister said. “This is the kind of cultural shift that we need.”