President Donald Trump took a major step toward removing the United States from global efforts to fight climate change Tuesday, ordering federal officials to start dismantling Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan. But even as Trump signed that executive order in Washington, renewable energy advocates out West were doubling down on their efforts to clean up the power grid.
At stake is the future of solar farms, wind turbines and coal plants across 11 western states, and a proposal from California Gov. Jerry Brown to bring them all under the umbrella of a unified power grid. Brown thinks a unified grid would bolster clean energy and reduce electricity rates, by making it easier for California to sell excess solar power to other states and import cheap wind power from Wyoming and New Mexico. But his plan has divided environmentalists, some of whom fear it would actually help the coal industry, or give Trump an opportunity to attack California’s climate policies.
Many climate advocates support Brown’s proposal. A coalition including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Silicon Valley tech companies and clean energy firms launched a new push for the governor’s western grid plan Tuesday, urging Golden States lawmakers to authorize the expansion of the California Independent System Operator, which runs most of the state’s electric grid.
Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of NRDC’s energy program, said the Trump administration’s backsliding on climate change makes it more important than ever for California to work with other states.
“At a time when the Clean Power Plan is under threat, the fastest and cheapest way to enhance renewable energy across the West is full western grid integration,” Cavanagh said in a conference call with reporters. “It’s something we can do regardless of federal policy to advance a clean energy expansion across the West that’s already well underway.”
But critics see Trump’s love affair with fossil fuels as a reason to be wary of Brown’s plan.
Large stacks fill the sky with steam at PacifiCorp’s Jim Bridger coal plant in southwestern Wyoming on Dec. 7, 2016. (Photo: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun)
Expanding California’s grid operator to encompass other western states would require a series of approvals from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which should be controlled by Trump appointees within a few months. Critics are worried FERC would use that process to undermine California’s climate policies, forcing the state to import dirty power from other parts of the West.
“It’s irresponsible and counter-productive to push for greater federal oversight of California energy policies,” said Matthew Freedman, an attorney at the Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based watchdog group that advocates for lower electricity rates and cleaner energy. “It’s surprising to hear a couple of groups get out front on this issue, especially on the same day President Trump announces a massive rollback of federal environmental regulations.”
Trump attacks Obama’s climate legacy
In his executive order Tuesday, Trump called for the Environmental Protection Agency to begin rolling back Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which is designed to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Trump also ordered the Interior Department to start leasing coal on federal lands again. And he told federal officials they no longer have to factor climate change into their decisions.
Trump misleadingly claimed his actions would put coal miners back to work, even though the Clean Power Plan has been temporarily halted by the Supreme Court and thus hasn’t taken effect yet. Obama’s moratorium on new federal coal leases hasn’t hurt the coal industry much, either. Experts say the biggest factor in the industry’s recent struggles has been the low cost of natural gas.
“The miners told me about the attacks on their jobs and their livelihoods. They told me about the efforts to shut down their mines, their communities and their very way of life. I made them this promise: We will put our miners back to work,” Trump said during an event at EPA headquarters, where he signed the executive order.
Without the Clean Power Plan, America would almost certainly fail to live up to the commitment it made at the Paris climate summit in 2015, when 195 nations agreed to limit global warming to manageable levels. The U.S. promised to cut its climate pollution at least 26 percent by 2025 — a target researchers have said we’re on track to miss, even with the Clean Power Plan in place.
“We need to speed up our response to climate change, because rising seas, drought, flooding and wildfires will affect everyone,” said Mary Solecki, western states advocate for Environmental Entrepreneurs, a group of business leaders and investors that supports Jerry Brown’s push for a unified western power grid.
Still, it could take Trump’s lieutenants years to repeal the Clean Power Plan — and they may not succeed. The EPA must go through the arduous legal and scientific process of showing why Obama’s regulation isn’t needed, or should be replaced with a less stringent rule. And the agency’s conclusions will inevitably face lawsuits from environmental groups.
Another complicating factor: In 2007, the Supreme Court said the EPA is obligated to regulate planet-warming greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, if the agency were to conclude that those emissions endanger public health. The EPA reached that conclusion after Obama took office. If Trump and his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, want to stop regulating greenhouse gases altogether, they’ll need to reverse that “endangerment finding” — which could fly in the face of the overwhelming scientific consensus that human emissions are driving unprecedented, dangerous changes to Earth’s climate.
California and the West
California’s leaders have vowed to fight Trump’s climate and energy policies. Brown sees a unified western grid as key to slashing emissions in California and across the West.
But with Trump in the White House, the politics of grid expansion might be too difficult to navigate.
Under Brown’s grid proposal, the California Independent System Operator would start its expansion by annexing PacifiCorp, a Warren Buffett-owned utility with customers in Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Washington, Wyoming and part of Northern California. Under that scenario, all six states would get some authority over the grid operator. But California lawmakers and some environmentalists are nervous about giving any amount of control to Utah and Wyoming, two deeply conservative states that harbor strong support for coal, oil and natural gas.
Those concerns are even stronger now that Trump is president and could theoretically interfere, said Andrew Zingale, legislative director for Assemblymember Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, who did not sign the letter.
“Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem politically palatable,” Zingale said in an interview last week.
Brown hoped to start the grid expansion with PacifiCorp so that California could more easily import cheap wind energy from Wyoming, which has some of the country’s strongest onshore winds. PacifiCorp’s leaders have been eager to link up with California’s grid, seeing an opportunity to reduce their costs while also building lucrative power lines to transmit clean electricity to California.
But some grid expansion supporters have conceded that PacifiCorp and its red-state customers are a non-starter for California lawmakers. Instead, they’re taking a broader approach, touting the potential benefits of a unified western grid and urging the Legislature to pass a bill allowing the California Independent system operator to annex out-of-state utilities.
“Had you not had PacifiCorp raising their hand and saying, ‘We want to join,’ you wouldn’t have started with PacifiCorp. You would have started with someone closer, and frankly, more politically aligned,” said Don Furman, a former PacifiCorp executive who now advocates for grid expansion through a coalition of environmental groups and energy companies called Fix the Grid West.
Strong opposition remains
Furman suggested California could instead partner with utilities in environmentally minded Oregon and Washington, or with NV Energy, another Warren Buffett-owned utility that covers much of Nevada. Abundant hydropower in the Pacific Northwest, Furman said, could help power California when solar plants go offline in the evening, reducing the state’s need for polluting gas plants.
“To be able to pull on the Columbia River (in Washington and Oregon) for a few hours would be really, really helpful,” he said.
If California were to unify the western United States’ 35 separate electric grids, Golden State homes and businesses would save $1.5 billion annually on their electric bills by 2030, according to a study commissioned by the grid operator. Reduced energy costs would lead to the creation of 19,300 jobs in California, even as some clean energy jobs move out of state, the study found.
“Done right, big tech companies to local solar panel installers to small farms in the Central Valley would benefit from a fully integrated grid,” Tim McRae, vice president for energy at the Silicon Valley Leadership Group — which represents companies including Apple, Facebook, IBM and Microsoft — said during Tuesday’s conference call.
Some labor economists have questioned the alleged benefits to California, saying the loss of high-paying renewable energy jobs to other states would outweigh whatever job growth is spurred by lower electricity rates. And California’s politically powerful labor unions have staunchly opposed grid expansion, not wanting to see jobs building solar and wind farms shipped to other states.
The Sierra Club, America’s largest environmental group, also isn’t convinced that grid expansion is a good idea. Club leaders worry that opening the California electricity market to coal plants in Utah and Wyoming might inadvertently prolong the lifetime of those facilities, allowing them to keep spewing climate-altering greenhouse gases — and other dangerous pollutants — for decades.
Kathryn Phillips, director of the Sierra Club’s California chapter, said it doesn’t make sense for the state Legislature to pass a bill allowing the grid operator to expand as it sees fit, as NRDC and other environmentalists have proposed. Instead, California leaders should carefully study which out-of-state utilities it would make sense to partner with, then write legislation specific to those utilities.
“In theory, you would think Washington, Oregon, possibly Nevada — these states seem to be on a trajectory to move away from coal, and to increase their renewable portfolio. They seem to share some of the values California has to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Phillips said. “But what you really need to do before you hop into a situation with them is really analyze them.”
A surplus of solar power
Over the last decade, California has enacted some of the nation’s most ambitious climate policies, including a renewable energy mandate, a cap-and-trade system to limit industrial emissions and financial incentives for clean cars. De León, the state Senate leader, introduced a bill last month that would increase the clean energy mandate from 50 percent by 2030 to 100 percent by 2045.
But even with those policies, meeting the state’s long-term climate goal — slashing emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 — won’t be easy.
Already, California is facing a new challenge: a surplus of renewable energy during the middle of the day, when solar farms have increasingly flooded the grid with more energy than homes and businesses are using. The California Independent System Operator said recently it may have to “curtail,” or turn away, as much 8,000 megawatts of power at times this spring, most of it solar.
Cavanagh, from the Natural Resources Defense Council, called the grid operator’s recent prediction of up to 8,000 megawatts of curtailment a “wake-up call.”
“California shouldn’t be shutting down clean energy from our solar fields and wind farms every time supply exceeds our state’s demand,” he said.
Still, California’s “too much solar” problem is far from a crisis at this point. And it’s not clear how much a unified western grid would help. Studies commissioned by the independent system operator found that a fully integrated grid would decrease the percentage of renewable energy production California is forced to curtail in 2030, but only slightly — from 4.5 percent to 1.2 percent.
And even that estimate might be too optimistic. Under an alternate “base case” modeled by the private consultants who conducted the study, California would only have to turn away 2 percent of renewable energy production by 2030, even without expanding its power grid. And that “base case” is the one that’s more likely to occur, according to comments submitted to the grid operator by all three of the state’s major utilities.
“Reducing curtailment is good, but it’s not the end of the world that renewables are getting curtailed a few percent of the hours of the year,” said Freedman, from the Utility Reform Network. “You’re using a small problem to propose a radical set of changes.”