Climate change in California: Paradoxes in strategy

A Bay Area train derailing from tracks overheated by an early-summer heat wave, sending at least one person to the hospital. Lightning strikes killing a woman and her two dogs in Southern California and injuring a man pushing a baby stroller in Kern County. A wildfire causing PG&E power outages so persistent that Stanford University on Wednesday canceled summer classes for the rest of the week.

Increasingly extreme weather is pummeling California’s electric grid, which is already struggling to meet demand — prompting fears the state could experience rolling blackouts this summer, two years after a heat wave triggered the first outages in nearly two decades and heightened political pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom to avoid further shutoffs.

How intense is that pressure? Well, as CalMatters’ Julie Cart and Rachel Becker report in this exclusive story, Newsom is pushing legislative leaders to include a far-reaching energy package in a yet-to-be-finalized budget deal that would give a state commission he appoints unilateral control over the development of clean-energy projects, prolong use of California’s four remaining natural-gas power plants, and allocate billions of dollars to fossil fuel power sources.

  • The negotiations on the provisions, which have largely been behind closed doors, suggest the state is trying to strike a balance between accelerating new solar and wind projects and ensuring the state has enough power to keep the lights on in the meantime.
  • But they also illuminate a contradiction at the heart of California’s climate plan: In order to fast-track clean energy, the state is proposing to bypass environmental reviews and oversight from local officials, community groups and state agencies that have helped protect disadvantaged communities, natural spaces and endangered species, environmental advocates say.
  • Brandon Dawson, director of the California Sierra Club: “We support the effort to get clean energy on the grid quickly, but this bill has weak environmental and public health protections, props up diesel and gas plants and is going to create conflicts between county and state agencies.”

The dissonance between California’s ambitious environmental goals and reality was also on display Thursday, when the state’s powerful Air Resources Board held a day-long public hearing on its sweeping new strategy for addressing climate change. (Proceedings were temporarily brought to a halt when activists entered the packed hearing room, decrying the state’s blueprint and demanding environmental justice.)

The highly controversial plan would increase electricity consumption by as much as 68% by 2045 — which state officials said would put an immense strain on the power grid absent hefty public and private investments in clean energy, CalMatters’ Nadia Lopez reports.

  • If those investments don’t materialize, California will have to keep relying on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, air board officials said.
  • The Newsom administration also made clear its desire, reflected in the private budget negotiations, to accelerate clean-energy projects. “We have to be able to get projects on the ground quicker,” said Secretary for Environmental Protection Jared Blumenfeld. “Offshore wind will take 15 years to permit and deploy. We don’t have 15 years. So part of our effort needs to be, not only to understand the power of our ambition, but how the hell do we get this done? We need reforms in those areas.”
  • At the same time, “We need to focus on what it takes to meet the needs of an evolving grid, especially during the hours when the system must ramp up to replace our massive solar fleet as the sun sets,” said Alice Reynolds, president of the California Public Utilities Commission.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 9,264,968 confirmed cases (+0.7% from previous day) and 91,314 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

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