August 23rd, 2016


Former Commissioner, California Public Utilities Commission

Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University

Senior Vice President of Regulatory Affairs, PG&E


Thanks to a big push by Governor Jerry Brown and the support of voters, California is on track to reach fifty percent renewable power by the year 2030.  But can we do better? Why not one hundred percent, say by 2050? Can this state, already a leader on the climate change front, do even more? 

Stanford’s Mark Jacobson thinks so. The key, he says, is to “electrify everything.”

“The first thing that happens is, you reduce power demands,” explains Jacobson, who is on the board of the Solutions Project, which advocates for 100% renewable energy.  Eliminating the need to mine and transport fossil fuels, along with energy efficiency improvements, can result in a 44% reduction in power demand in California.  “And then you provide all that electricity with clean renewable wind, water and solar,” he continues.  “Onshore and offshore wind, solar rooftop and power plant photovoltaic, concentrated solar power with storage, some geothermal power…” 

All of this can be done in California, Jacobson says, adding that “We reduce the social cost, or the health and climate cost, by about 60% for Californians, and create jobs in the process and create energy stability forever.”

Steve Malnight of power monolith PG&E agrees – to a point.  But, he warns, “We can't just look at the electric sector today...we’ve got to make sure we address transportation, we’ve got to make sure we can address the industrial uses.”  Those add up to about 80 percent of California’s carbon emissions, Malnight adds. “Those really are the biggest challenges we have in front of us today.” 

PG&E recently announced its decision to close its Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, a controversial move that has some environmental groups rejoicing and others up in arms.

Californians have already shown their support for cleaner energy options in their homes; and that could mean bypassing the big-box power companies altogether. As a board member of the California Independent System Operator, Mark Farron has his finger on the state’s electrical grid.  He sees the emergence of local power companies, or community choice aggregates, as a positive for California’s future.

“What we are seeing increasingly in communities that are looking that this as an option, is they want cleaner energy than what’s available on the grid,” says Ferron, himself a customer of Marin Clean Energy. “And one of the things that we’re trying to do at the California Independent System Operator is tap into that and allow third parties who have various renewable assets on the grid to aggregate those assets together and bid them into the wholesale market.  So we are actively encouraging another route for renewable resources to get on to the grid.”

Malnight points out that, since PG&E makes its profit by maintaining the grid, it’s not directly competing with community aggregators; in fact, it encourages customer choice. “Because frankly, for us to solve the problems we have from a climate perspective in the energy business, we need customers who care about their energy and are engaged and are making choices and are actively managing their energy use every day.” 

And that doesn’t just mean in our homes and workplaces. What about the miles in between?  What role can California’s transportation sector take in helping us get to that 100 percent goal?

So far, there are currently around 100,000 plug-in cars in California, and that number is growing.  “We have an electric system that is already incredibly clean and is getting cleaner,” Malnight tells the audience, reminding them that “your plug is far more ubiquitous than a gas station.  So the transportation fueling infrastructure is really already well-built out with the electric system to drive us to electrified transportation.”

“What gives you hope, thinking about the climate challenge in front of us?” host Greg Dalton asked each of his guests.

Jacobson responded that, “if we can get to a 100% clean renewable energy by 2050, we’ve found through simulations of carbon dioxide that by 2100 we can get between 350, 400 parts per million.

“So there is hope…we can solve the problem if we put our mind to it.”

Malnight found attending the Paris climate summit last December very encouraging. “I saw people from all over the world talking about it,” he remembers, “and I came back truly inspired and very hopeful that we’re going to accomplish this goal.”

Mark Ferron, whose two children were in the audience at the Commonwealth Club, sees hope in the next generation of world citizens.  “If you look at voters under 30, their number one concern is around climate,” he says.

“And I think that is where the next generation is going to need to really push the political process to get off the dime and start making real changes, from a policy standpoint, to move us where we need to go.”

Related Links:

GTM: Governor Brown calls for 50% renewables by 2030

California Renewables Portfolio Standard

The Solutions Project: 100% Renewable Energy

California Independent System Operator

PG&E: Environmental News