Amidst all of the news about climate change, it’s easy to overlook one major cause for optimism: Clean energy is winning. Here in California, renewables have come so far, so fast that we’re breaking our records almost as quickly as we set them. For a few hours in March, we got 50 percent of our state’s electricity from clean energy for the first time. Less than two months later, on May 13, we blew past that milestone, briefly achieving an 80 percent renewable electric grid.
Now, our legislators are preparing to consider whether it’s time for the world’s sixth largest economy to go all the way and set its sights on the clean energy holy grail: a grid powered by nothing but wind, water and sunlight.
On May 1, California Senate leader Kevin de Leon announced Senate Bill 100, which would mandate that California hit its current goal of 50 percent renewable electricity four years early (by 2026 instead of 2030), while also aiming for a new, 100 percent renewable electricity goal in 2045. Initially introduced on the same day that Congress voted in Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, the bill is a symbol of California’s resistance to backwards federal energy policy. More than that, SB 100 is a milestone in a global effort to reinvent our energy system — and an incredible opportunity for California to lead the way in finishing the job.
Not long ago, SB 100 wouldn’t have even been imaginable. But for years now, state policy makers, urged on by Californians, have done everything they can to make clean energy a Golden State brand. California today has six times more solar power, 10 times more electric vehicles and four times more clean tech patents than any other state.
California’s leadership in clean energy has also translated into growth in clean energy jobs. A national census conducted last year found that California had more solar workers than the next 15 states combined. To put the numbers another way: We currently have more people employed in solar in California than the whole country does in coal. Thanks to these successes and forward-looking research out of California universities, we can now see the path to building a completely clean electric grid. We know the goal is achievable. The question is whether we have the political willpower. So why should California aim for 100 percent?
In economic terms, a transition to 100 percent would create not just a new batch of companies but whole new industries. California would not only have to accelerate the deployment of wind and solar, but also craft the policy and make the investments to integrate and scale technologies, such as batteries and advanced smart grid and efficiency applications, necessary to create a fully renewable grid. These technologies exist and they will grow into huge global businesses as the next era of clean energy unfolds. The question is whether it will be California, China or another state or country that will lead that new era.
Aiming for 100 percent would also have a profound impact in determining who benefits from clean energy. Clean energy brings economic benefits, but it’s currently easier for wealthier people (think: those who own homes and have good credit) to access those benefits. A lot of good work is being done to expand access clean energy, but we need to set a bigger, north star goal. Everyone should have access to the economic benefits of clean energy. No one should have to raise their kids in sight of a power plant or a polluted river. It’s time we aimed at 100 percent clean energy for all, as fast as possible.
Above all, it’s time for California to aim for 100 percent because it would show, once and for all, that a strong, equitable economy can go hand in hand with powerful climate action. The fossil fuel industry’s strongest tactic has long been to argue that the modern economy can’t go on without it. That argument has already begun to look worn, as nearly a hundred major corporations, cities from San Francisco to Atlanta, states like Hawaii and Massachusetts and even countries like Denmark, have begun to set 100 percent renewable energy targets. California, though, operates on a whole different scale. SB 100 would stand as one of the most ambitious renewable energy goals every adopted anywhere in the world. If we can do it here, it can be done anywhere.
Like most concerned about the future of our planet, de Leon understands that 2017 is a special year. It’s a year of peril for the environment, but also a year in which California has a unique opportunity to aim high. At this point in history, it’s clear that clean energy will inevitably replace fossil fuels. The question is how long it will take, and the answer to that question matters.
I, for one, don’t want to pass up an opportunity to leave my grandkids a fossil fuel-free state. It’s time for California to do once again what it has done so many times before on clean energy: lead.
Billy Parish is founder and CEO of Mosaic, the largest lender for home solar in the country.