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California needs to expand its clean energy. And it starts by expanding its grid.

February 27, 2023

This blog was co-authored by Sam Uden, Director of Climate and Energy Policy at Conservation Strategy Group. 

California is a leader in establishing aggressive targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The state took another important step late last year, when the Air Resources Board unanimously approved the 2022 Scoping Plan—the ambitious roadmap to economy wide net-zero emissions by 2045. The plan calls for the state to grow offshore wind capacity to 20 GW from zero today, build 700% more battery storage annually than has ever been delivered in the state, and more than triple its current installed utility-scale solar capacity by 2045. 

But goals alone will not decarbonize California’s economy, nor can they ensure a fair, equitable, and cost-effective future for its residents. The state must now rise to the occasion and exhibit as much leadership in clean energy deployment as it has in clean energy ambition. The infrastructure backbone of a clean energy economy—the high-voltage electricity grid—is an ideal place to start. 

Transmission is the key to unlocking the enormous amount of new and distributed clean energy resources needed to achieve net-zero emissions. Renewable energy developers will be hesitant to invest in new projects without sufficient confidence that they will be able to connect to the grid. Prioritizing fast, fair, and ambitious transmission deployment this decade is essential for California to achieve its climate goals.  

Incorporating three changes to the state’s approach to transmission can help achieve the goals of the Scoping Plan. 

First is to plan proactively. California Public Utilities Commission staff recently highlighted the potential for increasing negative environmental impacts as renewable resources accrue in the late 2020s and early 2030s. Advance planning that identifies priority clean energy zones based on community, economic and environmental benefits can reduce this risk and increase community acceptance of projects. The Central Valley is one region that may benefit from this approach, especially as Sustainable Groundwater Management Act implementation removes agricultural land from production in order to save water. 

Second is to accelerate permitting—a primary driver behind why projects often take more than a decade to complete. It is extremely unlikely that California could reconcile the Scoping Plan scenarios for achieving net-zero emissions by 2045 with these protracted development timelines. Accelerating the permitting process is essential.  Newly introduced bills including SB 619 (Padilla) and SB 420 (Becker) could address this problem by consolidating transmission permitting authority at a single state agency as well as eliminating redundancies in the permitting process. 

Third is to provide state financing for transmission. Rapid transmission expansion could significantly increase customer bills, further burdening low-income households. Shifting some portion of transmission project costs from ratepayers to the General Fund, Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, or bond financing could meaningfully reduce ratepayer impacts. The state has already committed to financing part of a transmission project critical to unlocking geothermal development in the Salton Sea region. 

One way to implement these solutions could be to vest a public agency with the authority to plan, develop, permit, and finance high-voltage transmission lines essential to achieving the state’s ambitious clean energy goals. These include North and Central Coast offshore wind, Central Valley solar and Salton Sea geothermal—projects that the California Independent System Operator estimates could cost roughly $20 billion. The multi-agency Report to the Governor on Priority SB 100 Actions identified a possible role for a transmission authority in the state. 

The Air Resources Board’s approval of the Scoping Plan amounts to it throwing down the gauntlet on the clean energy transition. State leaders must now meet the moment by advancing policies that address key institutional barriers to high-voltage transmission deployment this decade. Achieving California’s climate ambitions depend on it. 

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