California believes it can change the world: the state is at the forefront of a shift away from fossil fuels, hoping to vastly improve efficiency of renewable energy generation, and, at the same time, re-architect the aging electrical grid.

At the heart of these efforts are regulations, state-level mandates that aim to build a greener future without imposing burdensome costs on businesses.

Keep it real

“We cannot regulate energy efficiency standards in California unless they are technically feasible and economically beneficial,” Albert Lundeen, deputy executive director for strategic planning at the Commission, told DCD.

“You’ve got to be able to show that, whatever the technology is, it is market-ready and that ultimately, it will save the consumer money. One of the things that the private sector desires is certainty - the public sector can establish policies that let you know where this state or that government is headed in the near and the far future.”

This renewable energy drive dates back decades, but its most ambitious efforts are yet to come. “Our renewable energy goal at the moment is 50 percent by 2030,” Lundeen said. “Eighteen months ago it was 33 percent by 2020, and we know that milestone is going to be achieved. Utilities saw the writing on the wall and planned for it because they can’t make the decision in a month, or even 18 months. They need to look years ahead.”

Renewables need storage

The move to renewables will also force a rethink of how electricity is stored and delivered. In 2013, California set itself another target - 1.3GW of energy storage by 2020. “And a lot of that is already in place. In fact, there’s got to be half a dozen or more reasonably-sized projects, mostly in Southern California.

“It’s a necessary component of the grid,” Lundeen said, admitting that due to its heavy investment in solar, California had to pay other states to take excess energy several times last year - instead of storing it locally.

“Most of these storage facilities have been based on batteries at this point, but we don’t want to close the door on alternatives. We’ve done a lot of R&D on some other possibilities as well - different types of batteries, pump storage, air-compressed storage.”

Complementing new energy storage capabilities are plans to change how America’s antiquated grid system works - one, on a local scale, using several microgrid systems. The other takes aim at a larger problem, a common grid for western states.

Upgrading the grid

Governor of California Jerry Brown has proposed a new grid for as many as 14 states, but the plan, which has gone through multiple iterations, faces stiff opposition. “We’ve got a lot of partners through Utah and Arizona, our neighboring Intermountain states, and a big concern of theirs is that they don’t want to be overly influenced by California,” Lundeen said.

Equally, there are those in California that fear that expanding the grid will increase the number of politicians, agencies and business that have influence over it, putting California’s renewable goals at risk.

Challenges remain, but there are some examples of interstate cooperation. “Right now we get wind from Wyoming,” Lundeen said. The goal is to allow states to share in each other’s natural resources, rather than each being a kingdom unto itself. For example, California, despite being blessed with copious sun, lacks the abundant wind supply found in some mid-western states.

“We have a deep shoreline, so the idea of attaching a wind turbine tower to the base of the ocean floor is just not a possibility off the coast of California, but we’re exploring offshore wind on floating platforms,” Lundeen explained.

The world is watching

Already, California’s progress has had a global impact: “We think of ourselves as kind of like a laboratory for the world. Every week we have visitors from around the world that come to our HQ and ask how we have succeeded at making the changes we have.”

But while the world may be taking notice, at a federal level, the United States appears intent on reverting to the old ways, with the Trump administration pulling out of the Paris Agreement, and rolling back numerous EPA regulations. Where does that leave California?

“We certainly have a different dynamic now than a couple of years ago,” Lundeen said. “But we’re seeing a big move toward renewable energy, despite what some would see as a conflict.”

Even with the coal-fueled fever that’s gripping the White House, it appears that renewables have already passed a crucial point - no matter the regulation of the day, they are simply more economical.

Data centers, ever the power hogs, are turning to renewables in droves - not just for the good PR, or that warm, fuzzy feeling. No, they are doing it because the prices of green energy are low and, crucially, stable.

Operators can plan and budget years in advance, instead of being at the mercy of a fluctuating fossil fuel market. Lundeen said: “On the contracts for big commercial facilities, solar and wind are very competitive, if not the best price out there.”

But he cautioned: “We have made significant strides, but much more needs to be done.”

This article appeared in the June/July issue of DCD Magazine, subscribe in digital and print for free: