Can California really hit a 50 percent renewables goal?

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California Gov. Jerry Brown has set an ambitious new energy goal: Getting the most populous state in the nation to derive 50 percent of all its electric power from renewable sources in the space of 15 years.

But can it be accomplished? And can it be done without sending electricity bills through the roof?

Depends on who you’re talking to.

“We must demonstrate that reducing carbon is compatible with an abundant economy and human well-being,” Brown said while announcing the target to a joint session of the Legislature. Hydroelectricity and nuclear power cannot count toward the 50 percent goal.

California already has a mandate that 33 percent of electric power consumed must come from renewable resources by 2020.

As one would expect, the renewables industry cheered the announcement from the 76-year-old Democrat who is entering his fourth and final four-year term as governor. Republicans and business groups had reservations, to say the least.

“I’m told by the industry that we might be able to absorb 40 percent, but you start having problems” beyond that, state Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff told reporters after Brown addressed the state Legislature Jan. 5. “The sun doesn’t shine at night so solar doesn’t work. The wind doesn’t blow when you need it, it blows when it does. So you’re left with an unstable grid when you get beyond a certain level.”

“Is it feasible? Absolutely,” said Ken Johnson, vice president of communications at the Solar Energy Industries Association in an email to “With 8,544 megawatts of electricity, solar is already producing enough electricity to power about 2 million homes in California — and we’re just scratching the surface of our potential.” 

Brown’s target for the state’s Renewables Portfolio Standard received a warm reception from Democrats in the California Legislature, even if some wonder whether the 50 percent mark can be reached.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, said the goals are “in the realm of possibility.”

Brown said the 50 percent mark could prove to be “a very tall order.”

Count Robert Michaels, professor of economics at Cal State Fullerton University, as skeptical.

“I think it’s going to be a lot more costly than anyone’s making it out to be,” Michaels told, citing what energy economists call the “rebound effect.”

That occurs when something — such as electricity — becomes more available, efficient and less expensive, people use more, rather than less.

“Renewables are going to have to be somehow reliably backed up with conventional power sources, and that means we’re back in the fossil fuel-burning business,” Michaels said in a telephone interview.

According to the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, the state’s business owners already pay 84 percent more than the national average for industrial electricity.

“It’s very difficult for manufacturers in California to compete, between the increasing renewable standards and the state’s cap-and-trade program,” said Gino DiCaro, vice president of communications at CMTA. Since 2010, DiCaro said, manufacturing jobs in California have grown less than 1 percent but have increased 6.2 percent in the rest of the country.

“We’re already at 150 percent of electrical rates of our neighboring states, meaning we’re paying 50 percent more,” Huff said. “So, as we continue to amp up this feel good environmental policy, we price ourselves out of job growth that will help the middle class.”

Another concern is that reaching 50 percent would likely require more reliance on solar and wind energy.

But their intermittent nature adds uncertainty as well as economic and logistical challenges, Michaels said.

“The more renewables you have the bigger the problems of interruptions to the power that you have,” Michaels said in a telephone interview. “You’ve got to have reserves to potentially cover more contingencies.”

At the same time, Michaels said, the state’s power plants run into a problem with over-generation.

“There are going to be times when there is too much power being put on the system,” he said. “It’s the same with any kind of mismatch you see with supply and demand. Too much power has its own bad consequences, and they come in the form of blackouts and stability problems.”

But fans of renewables say they’re confident the concerns can be overcome.

“As renewable penetration increases, policymakers and utilities have shown growing interest in technologies that can ensure long-term reliability without increasing emissions,” said Jennifer Z. Rigney, director of corporate communications atBrightSource Energy, which designs and develops solar thermal technology, based in Oakland.

“Recent studies show flexible resources such as Concentrating Solar Power with thermal energy storage can play an important role achieving the governor’s objectives by providing dispatchable power when it is needed most, improving reliability and reducing costs.”

Brown’s plan still has to make it through the Legislature.

The California statehouse is dominated by Democrats, but it took two years to approve the existing 33 percent mandate. An effort to raise the mandate above 50 percent, introduced by a state assemblyman, failed last year.

State regulators can increase the renewables mandate without going through the Legislature, but doing so would not apply to publicly owned utilities.