CPUC Should Adopt an Ambitious 2030 Carbon Emissions Target

Jan. 27, 2020
A California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) proposal may not the most efficient way for the state to attain a zero-carbon electric sector by 2045, which is required by state law, say NRDC’s Mohit Chhabra and Sergio Sanchez Lopez. 

A California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) proposal may not be the most efficient way for the state to attain a zero-carbon electric sector by 2045, which is required by state law. Mohit Chhabra and Sergio Sanchez Lopez of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) explain.

Mohit Chhabra, senior scientist, climate & clean energy, NRDC

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) should set California on the best-possible path to attain a zero-carbon electric sector by 2045 as required by state law. Unfortunately, in a proposed ruling, the CPUC is recommending an interim carbon emissions target for electricity use in the state that won’t get us to our 2045 goals efficiently. Even its own analysis indicates it misses the mark for where we really ought to be by a significant 16 million metric tons—equal to the annual pollution from 3.4 million cars.

The CPUC is proposing that by 2030 the annual carbon emissions from electricity generation for Californians be capped at 46 million metric tons (MMT). While that’s a substantive decrease from the 60 MMT of carbon emitted in 2017, the CPUC needs to set a much lower emissions target to chart the course towards a zero-carbon electric grid by 2045 as required by Senate Bill 100 (SB100) and former Governor Brown’s Executive Order of achieving a carbon-neutral economy by 2045.

The best emissions target for 2030 is 30 MMT. The CPUC has already conducted extensive analysis on a 30 MMT scenario and therefore has all the information it needs to adopt this target.

Here’s why adopting the 30 MMT total target for California’s investor-owned utilities, Community Choice Aggregators (CCAs), and direct service providers is the right thing to do.

Sergio Sanchez Lopez, sustainable energy fellow, NRDC

To get to a carbon-neutral economy by 2045 we need a zero-carbon electric sector, meaning we need to reduce emissions from our electric sector at a very rapid pace. A 30 MMT in 2030 target puts us on a path to efficiently get to a zero-carbon electric grid by 2045.

Finally, reducing more emissions now is what we need to fight climate change.
The CPUC’s emissions reduction target proposal is a part of the CPUC’s integrated resources planning (IRP) proceeding’s 2019-2020 cycle, which is where it determines how to reduce electric sector carbon emissions while keeping our lights on and electricity affordable. The CPUC will be issuing a decision on this proposed ruling by February 14th. The mechanics of this proceeding are explained in this blog.

Decarbonizing the electric Sector is crucial

Here are the essential ingredients for a zero-carbon future. Start by increasing the share of California’s electricity generated from clean emissions-free rersources. Then, as the grid gets cleaner, use electricity to meet most of our energy needs by replacing fossil-fuel powered cars and water heaters with electric alternatives. This will increase the demand for electricity, which is met through more investments in clean energy and energy efficiency. Keep repeating these steps, until we arrive at that zero-carbon future.

By law, California’s power companies have 25 years to create a zero-carbon electric grid. The CPUC needs to spur these electricity producers to start building and investing in clean energy now to accomplish our 2045 goals in a timely and measured manner. Delaying clean energy investments means the state’s power companies will have to do much more later to meet California’s 2045 zero-carbon electricity goals. It also means we will have more dangerous carbon pollution in the atmosphere. This is problematic because the type of transformation needed for economy-wide carbon neutrality requires major changes. It takes time and creativity to prudently make them. Putting California’s electric sector in a situation of having to do more in less time will lead to inefficient decisions and excess spending that we will all pay for through our electricity bills.

The 30 MMT target is the right milestone

The CPUC’s own analysis shows that a 2030 statewide target of 30 MMT is more aligned with California’s 2045 goals than the 46 MMT target that was proposed. These statewide targets of 46 and 30 MMT translate to approximately 37 and 24 MMT of emissions for the portion of the grid managed by the CPUC. This is illustrated below, taken from the same ruling’s addendum (overlaid with additional information):

Courtesy of RMI

However, the CPUC says it is proposing the higher target because the renewable buildout required to meet this higher target is in line with historical levels of renewable energy development. This rationale runs counter to the very objective of California’s farsighted climate policy, which is to accelerate the development and deployment of renewable resources with the urgency necessary to fight climate change. By setting a tighter emissions target for 2030, the CPUC will send an important signal to the state’s power companies: invest more in clean energy now.

By law, California’s power companies have 25 years to create a zero-carbon electric grid.

California must reduce as many carbon emissions as feasible through 2045

To put in context, the 16 MMT carbon emissions difference between what the CPUC recommends and what it should endorse for 2030 is equivalent to the yearly pollution from 3.4 million vehicles, or from burning approximately 17.5 billion pounds of coal, or so much carbon that it would take around 21 million acres of U.S. forest land to sequester it.

That isn’t the only issue with the CPUC’s recommendation

Once emitted, carbon accumulates and lingers in our atmosphere for decades. It is this accumulation that leads to the Pacific Ocean swelling and steadily encroaching on California’s coastline. This carbon accumulation also creates conditions conducive to deadly wildfires in our state. So, what matters as much as, or more than, simply getting to a zero-carbon grid in 2045 is minimizing total carbon emissions from now through 2045.

California is a global leader in the fight against climate change and the CPUC must maintain our state’s leadership by adopting a lower 2030 emissions target for the electric sector. That will not only reap environmental benefits, it will also help California reach its ambitious 2045 goals in a more cost-efficient manner.

NRDC isn’t alone in recommending this. The Union of Concerned Scientists, Sierra Club, the California Environmental Justice Alliance, and the Environmental Defense Fund all advocate for a 30 MMT target. Even an electric utility, Southern California Edison, urged the CPUC to adopt a lower emissions target of 38 MMT.

This post originally ran on the NRDC Expert Blog and was reposted with permission. Mohit Chhabra is a senior scientist with the NRDC climate & clean energy program, and Sergio Sanchez Lopez is an NRDC sustainable energy fellow. 

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