Although California is well ahead of its interim clean energy goals – about 34% of its output last year – become zero carbon by 2045 will be a major challenge.
With worsening weather patterns, the electrification of transportation and buildings, the collapse of hydroelectric power due to drought, and the scheduled shutdown of fossil fuel power plants, the sobering reality in California is the following: at the current rate, the state will produce 40 gigawatts of clean electricity. annual power over the next decade, while preliminary projections show it needs 60 gigawatts per year – at a minimum.
The need, given how quickly demand is growing, is likely to increase.
“It’s a huge task,” said Siva Gunda, Vice Chairman of the California Energy Commission. “We’ve had 100 years to build the network as it is today and we’re going to do it again in the next 20 years. At least we have a plan. We come out of a hole.
The scope of what is required means California will need to significantly expand its renewable footprint. With the most obvious and cheapest sites already developed, the way forward will be reached one sunny and windy acre at a time.
Experts say residents can expect to see energy development in parts of California where solar panels and wind turbines have yet to grow. This expansion is likely to challenge the hospitality of rural communities and their elected officials, especially when they feel left out of the process.
Such a decline is not unexpected. Research published in June found that when local groups feel they are not being consulted about renewable energy projects in their communities, they push back hard. The researchers concluded that the best way to gain local buy-in is to listen to local voices.
Although the state law is new and its implications are not yet fully understood, Jackson said the first message was “loud and clear from my developers: they want to continue the local process. The path (Energy Commission) is not so attractive. When you unpack the proposal, it seems to fail.
Some local officials predicted a cascade of lawsuits from local authorities will follow. The law “has created an enemy of local government and may unnecessarily exacerbate existing (anti-Sacramento) sentiment,” Jackson said.
Local pockets of resistance
A few counties in California are strongly opposed to some renewable energy projects: In 2015, Los Angeles County banned wind turbines in unincorporated areas such as the Antelope Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains.
And three years ago, San Bernardino, the state’s largest county, banned solar and wind farms on more than a million acres in unincorporated communities where industrialization is deemed incompatible.
Residents feared construction disturbances and dust, and expressed more aesthetic concerns, said David Wert, spokesman for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors.
“People who live in these small communities don’t want to wake up and look out the window at a big solar farm,” he said.
The feeling of not being in my backyard led to the rejection of two projects in Humboldt and Lake counties.
With wind turbines, “there is a visibility problem. “If I can see it, I don’t want it.” It’s not unique to California or any of those rural counties,” said Mark Lawlor, vice president of development at ConnectGEN, a Texas-based renewable energy developer,
The issue also led to the recent rejection of ConnectGEN’s Fountain Wind project in Shasta County, which proposed to go to a high ridge adjacent to an existing wind project. Local opposition ran the gamut, from concerns over the views to fears that tall turbines would prevent air tankers from fighting fires in the surrounding mountains.
Lawlor said project managers made 76 changes to the plan, including reducing the height of the turbines and moving them from the most visible places. He said the project would improve fire safety by clearing vegetation around roads and turbines. It had the potential to power more than 86,000 homes, according to the company.
“The benefits to the county would be overwhelming, infusing millions of dollars into the economy, policing, jobs and property taxes,” Lawlor said. The company donated $3 million to local organizations, a common strategy among renewable energy developers to curry favor with communities.
“We hired local labor, we did whatever we could find. We are literally building phase 2 of an existing wind project that has been operating safely for 10 years,” he said.
Yet the development has faced fierce opposition, including from environmental groups. The wind farm was reportedly in the district of Shasta County Supervisor Mary Rickert, who called it “unsightly” and said it was foolish for the developer to try to place its turbines on the ridge. “I don’t know what they were thinking,” she said.
After denying the permit, supervisors considered imposing a moratorium on wind power systems in parts of the county. The council sent the proposal back to the planning commission “to give it more meat,” Rickert said. She said that if the moratorium proposal comes back to council, it will pass.
Rickert said the pushback in the region has nothing to do with opposition to renewable energy. And as for doing her part to help the state meet its clean energy goals, she noted the county’s contribution to hydroelectric power: “We have the Shasta Dam.
Nancy Rader, Executive Director of the California Wind Energy Association, said it understood the concerns of local groups, but said they needed to be balanced against the imperative to build clean energy projects.
“There’s a disconnect between statewide goals and leaving those decisions to local communities,” she said. “Some people are left behind. Disadvantaged communities suffer tremendously from the impacts of fossil fuels, and then we have other people who can’t manage a wind turbine in their line of sight. We have to keep relative impacts in mind.
The idea that opposition to renewables follows a red-blue political divide is not playing out across the state. Conservative Kern and Riverside counties are “built up,” Rader said. Kern, the state’s fossil fuel supplier for a century, has vast renewable energy plans.
What Kern County officials and others balk at, however, is a national law which exempts solar projects from property taxes, starving local governments of operational cash. Neves of Kings County estimates the solar tax break costs his area about $3 million a year. The law is due to expire in 2025, but a similar measure made its way to the Legislative Assembly. (Wind projects do not receive similar tax breaks.)
But rather than providing a benefit to solar projects, the tax exemption discourages local jurisdictions from approving projects, said
Catherine Freeman, Legislative Staff Member of the California State Counties Association. “These property taxes pay for basic county government,” she said.
Energy Commission’s Gunda said the state created a task force last year to better understand the key barriers to accelerating renewable energy projects. Its work is still ongoing, but Gunda said there have been significant construction delays due to COVID-19 and supply chain outages.
Regardless of how the new law plays out, the urgency is clear, said Shannon Eddy, executive director of the Large Scale Solar Association. She said county and state officials and power developers should create a statewide model to help the process of siting new power plants.
“It’s neither fair nor correct to single out counties and say that’s where the problem lies,” she said. “Everyone has to help. Everyone must come together to make this happen. We build the plane as it rolls down the runway.