Cali Senate Approves Tougher Clean Power Mandate

California Senate has passed a bill that requires all public and private utilities to get 33 percent of their electricity supplies from renewable sources by 2020. If it becomes law, the legislation would end a years-long political wrangling and make the state home to the toughest renewable energy mandate in the country.

The Senate passed the bill, SBX1 2, Thursday mostly along party lines and the bill is now headed to the Assembly. Brown hasn’t yet said whether he would support it, though he has styled himself as a cleantech governor, just as his predecessor Gov. Schwarzenegger did.

State law currently requires utilities to get 20 percent of the electricity from clean power by 2010 and has an executive order in place, signed by former Gov. Schwarzenegger in 2008, to require 33 percent by 2020. The California Air Resources Board also has adopted the same mandate last year by invoking its authority to carry out AB32, the climate change bill that passed in 2006 to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

You would think both measures would make the 33 percent requirement stick without lawmakers getting involved. But there was political wrangling over several issues, including whether the Air Resources Board has the authority to boost the renewable energy mandate and oversee its implementation. Until now, the California Public Utilities Commission has been the primary authority to make sure the 20 percent mandate is met. The CPUC only regulates investor-owned utilities, which serve the vast majority of Californians.

Codifying the 33 percent mandate into law also would make it harder to change it, and as a result some lawmakers have attempted to pass a bill in the past few years. State Sen. Joe Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, has tried to do this three times, including the bill passed by the Senate Thursday. In one of his earlier attempts, the bill won approval in both houses of the Legislature, but Schwarzenegger vetoed it. One sticking point was the bill’s requirement that would limit the utilities’ ability to import renewable power from out of state.

The current bill removed that in-state requirement. Supporters say the bill is necessary to bring more jobs and tax revenues to California. Opponents say it will send electricity prices soaring and cost the state and consumers too much money.

California’s major utilities already have turned to power producers from nearby states such as Arizona, Nevada and Oregon to buy solar and wind power. In fact, the largest photovoltaic power plant in the U.S. is currently the 48 MW Copper Mountain Solar in Nevada, and was completed by Sempra Generation last year to serve customers of Pacific Gas and Electric. Developers of a Nevada transmission project that is getting a federal loan guarantee also hope to export renewable power to California via the new transmission line. (There’s larger projects under development but not yet completed).

Meanwhile, the state’s largest utilities already have been busy signing big power purchase agreements to meet the 33 percent requirement. Their push to get more power from sun, wind, geothermal and others has spawned giant power plant projects, some of which have attracted strong opposition from environmental and community groups.

The state’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates also issued a report last week that criticized the CPUC’s review of renewable power sales contracts. The DRA contends that the CPUC hasn’t done enough to make sure utilities don’t sign overpriced contracts and then pass on those costs to consumers.

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Photo of Copper Mountain Solar project, courtesy of Sempra Generation