California has been one of the US states that have taken a lead in the race towards net-zero energy, and by all accounts, this isn’t going to change any time soon.
Having made a commitment to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to below what they were in 1990 by 2020, California hit its target four years early, in 2016, reducing them from 494 million metric tons to 429 – the target having been slightly higher at 431 million metric tons.
While this was complicated by a later increase in pollution from transportation, California also approved the first net-zero building code in the United States in 2017. The state, like many other states in the US and countries or cities in the world including New York also passed laws that required all new residential buildings to be zero net energy by 2020 and all commercial construction to be zero net energy by 2030.
More recently, former California Governor, Jerry Brown signed a carbon-neutral order in 2018 as well as legislation that would make electricity 100% renewable by 2045.
Zero Energy in California
Like many other US states, California had (and still has) a strategic plan with goals that kick in this year – 2020. More specifically:
- By 2020 all new residential construction was required to be zero net energy.
- By 2030, which gives us another decade, all new commercial construction must be zero net energy.
- State buildings that are renovated are encouraged to be zero net energy, with 50% being the required percentage of all new major renovations.
- Similarly, 50% of commercial buildings that are retrofitted must be zero net energy by 2030.
While there are slightly different definitions for buildings, communities, campuses, and portfolios, an energy-efficient building consumes less or no more than the amount of renewable energy it generates on-site. The definition is, therefore, related to what is called a “source energy basis”.
It is no secret that substantial growth in renewable energy was the primary reason California was able to meet its net-zero energy goal so early. This translates primarily to solar and wind power, including key rooftop solar installations. The truth is that while there was significant compliance with the official mandate to ensure that electricity came from renewable sources wherever possible, the costs of solar panels also declined dramatically at this time.
In reality, by 2016:
- The State of California was utilizing 46% renewable electricity.
- In that year alone the use of solar electricity grew by a third.
- In the same year, natural gas decreased by more than 15%.
According to news reports at the time, it wasn’t just the growth in renewable energy that made the immense impact but also the reduced imports of cola power that resulted in emissions from fossil fuel-based electricity plunging 18% in the year 2015 to 2016.
Another factor that played into the hands of energy efficiency was the weather. While California had relied on natural gas when the weather was dry, when the rains arrived and the weather got wetter, it incentivized the generation of hydroelectric power.
In a nutshell, reduced coal power coupled with an unprecedented increase in renewable energy resulted in a decrease of 18% in fossil-fuelled electricity from 2015 to 2016. Also, the state’s per-capita greenhouse gases dropped from 14 metric tons per person in 2001 to 10.8 five years later.
According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while the greenhouse gas emissions in California reduced below 1990 levels in 2016, within two years they were already higher than 1990 levels!
The Negative Impacts the Positive
Even though California has taken a powerful lead, it’s not perfect by any means and, in fact, the biggest source of greenhouse gases in the state remain cars and trucks and transportation in general. Contributing to this state of affairs are lower gas prices, less efficient vehicles, a preference of bigger cars with more room, and a much slower transition to electric cars.
The scrapping of fuel economy standards by the Trump administration has also had a severe impact.
There is no argument that California’s grid is powered increasingly by renewable energy, but it was also cleaner than most of the nation in the first place. Even now, the greenhouse gases in California are a lot less (50% in 2018) that the rest of the country.
But there’s a huge irony showing its head here. When California adopted its landmark climate change law in 2006, many said it was absurd because the state’s power grid was so “clean”. The argument was that this would make climate-change goals costly and difficult, if not impossible to reach. They were already too far advanced.
But that wasn’t realistic, and now it is widely accepted that for California to reach its 2030 goal it’s going to have to pick up its pace somewhat. Probably what’s going to be needed is a much cleaner electrical grid plus a rapid shift to electric cars that offer zero emissions.
That doesn’t mean the same scenario will apply in other states, but to keep increasing its energy efficiency status, California will have to take the lead, again!
And The Rest of the US Follows Suit
Reports indicate that the commitments made by US states and their utilities increased during 2019 more than ever before. In fact, many committed to a goal of 100% clean energy with others pitching in at 50%.
Many committed engineering companies like New York Engineers have played a pivotal role, but we need to look at statistics to be sure.
According to the World Resources Institute:
- 15 states that represent 28% of the US electric “power demand” have or had an official target to get 50% or more electricity from “clean” sources.
- 7 states enacted laws during 2019 required a minimum of 50% clean electricity goals.
- A number of other states had clean electricity targets that were decreed by governors via executive actions.
Examples of clean electricity commitments include California and New York State which aim to be at 50% by 2030, California up to 100% by 2045 and New York up to 100% by 2040.
Of course, the targets appear similar, but approaches differ, and it will be history that will tell the eventual story. Already, since 2020 was a goal, the goalposts have shifted, but hopefully clean energy goals will be reinvented and followed. Low carbon is undoubtedly the key to a healthy sustainable future.