On Wednesday, October 24, David Hochschild, a commissioner on the California Energy Commission, delivered some hopeful news about the progress California is making to reduce climate pollution. His talk, sponsored by Acterra, took place at the Foster Art and Wilderness Foundation in Palo Alto and was titled, “Sunrise from the West—California and the Dawn of the Clean Energy Era.”
Hochschild was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Energy Commission in February 2013 in the environmental position. A longtime solar energy advocate, he worked with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown to put solar panels on public buildings, and cofounded the Vote Solar Initiative, an organization advocating for local, state, and federal solar policies. He served as executive director of a national consortium of leading solar manufacturers and worked for five years at Solaria, a solar company in Silicon Valley.
Hochschild’s goal now is to “bring light in dark times,” when the national government is going in the opposite direction from what we need for clean energy development. He believes that California can show the rest of the country—and the world—how it’s done.
First, he showed how predictions of the growth of solar and wind were way too low. While the line on the graph for the prediction of solar implementation barely moves up, the actual installed solar generating capacity jets up at a steep angle.
On a different graph, going down in exactly the opposite direction, is the line representing the value of the top four coal companies. They have lost 99 percent of their value in recent years.
“It’s the beginning of the end of an era,” said Hochschild.
Hochschild disparaged the long history of subsidies to the oil industry—which are still going strong with no end date. Meanwhile, the much smaller subsidies for solar have short time spans.
“This causes a tilted playing field,” said Hochschild. “We’re wasting money propping up the oil industry.”
California’s economy has grown, as has its population, but the state’s emissions have gone down, except in one area—transportation. But with the passage of SB 100 with Governor Brown’s signature in September, the state is on track to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2045.
Hochschild explained that the 100 percent number represents “clean” energy, which is still being defined, but would not include nuclear. To get there, we will need to have diversity in the portfolio, including wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal, and others.
“For years, skeptics have said that moving to clean sources of energy would ruin the economy, drive up unemployment, and raise energy rates, but it hasn’t,” he said.
California actually leads the rest of the U.S. in renewables installed but has had 46 percent economic growth while over the same period the U.S. has seen 35 percent.
“Because we set energy standards, we use half the energy that the U.S. uses,” said Hochschild. “These old arguments are just wrong.”
Hochschild said that as a large market, California can affect manufacturers’ decisions on what to build. For example, our standards on the energy efficiency of TV sets saves consumers $1 billion a year, but the effect is magnified because companies choose to incorporate those standards into their products for everyone.
One easy way to save energy is to switch to LED light bulbs from traditional incandescents, which are being phased out. Starting on January 1, 2018, stores in California were permitted to sell the incandescent bulbs they had in stock but couldn’t order more. As it is, customers are embracing LED bulbs, which cost a little more (prices have been dropping) but last 20 to 25 years and use 80 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs.
Newer LED bulbs are available in a soft white and other shades, so they feel more familiar, emitting a warm glow. The compact fluorescent bulbs, which tended to have a harsh light quality, have faded away now that LEDs have taken over.
Topaz Solar Farm in California
Hochschild displayed images of large solar farms in the California desert that are producing vast amounts of electricity. The technology is improving so fast, he said, that they were able to incorporate improvements into the panels and the installation process mid-project.
The major computer and software companies, such as Google and Facebook, are all signing on for 100 percent renewable energy. Hochschild showed an aerial view of Apple’s massive donut-shaped campus, covered with 17 MW of solar panels.
The list goes on. California has the world’s second-largest lithium-ion battery plant (behind Tesla’s giant Gigafactory in Nevada). California leads the nation in energy from biomass, too.
Block Island Offshore Wind Farm in Rhode Island
Offshore wind farms are developing—we saw the Block Island offshore wind farm in Rhode Island – the first one in the U.S. Offshore farms are easier to construct in the East, Hochschild explained, because the Atlantic shoreline is shallow, while the Pacific’s drops off. However, there is a new way of creating offshore wind energy in the Pacific Ocean by installing floating platforms for the windmills, tethered down to the sea floor. There are some significant benefits.
“Offshore wind installations out at sea are not only invisible from land, but more important–the wind blows more of the time out there—60 percent versus 35 percent on land,” said Hochschild. “And because it blows at different times of the day from the times when the sun is shining, it can offset times when solar panels aren’t generating electricity,” he added.
Offshore windmills are more expensive to install, but with greater capacity, they catch up by generating more energy.
Regarding employment, there are 86,400 solar workers in California. That’s more than the workers in every other energy industry. And, it’s growing, as solar installations are increasing, reaching about a million in California.
Hochschild believes that the best plan for clean energy would be to electrify all services and run them off a clean grid as we reduce use of natural gas. He talked about how much natural gas is used in homes today for furnaces, stoves, water heaters, and some dryers. But some new homes are being built without gas lines at all.
“It saves $3,000 right away by not having to run the gas pipes,” he said.
The good news continued. One hundred percent renewable energy will power the state’s high-speed rail system, when it’s built. California institutions have taken $6 trillion out of investments in fossil fuels.
Hochschild compared the fossil fuel industry methods now to the tobacco industry in the 1950’s. Service personnel during World War II were given cigarettes as part of their rations, building lifelong habits. Advertisements showed celebrities like Marilyn Monroe smoking, and even a doctor. Hosts smoked on TV. About half of the population were cigarette customers then.
“The industry was selling cigarettes and also doubt about the health risks,” he said, comparing it to the way fossil fuels are denying climate change today. “But with rigorous campaigns and limitations, such as placing warnings on the packs, removing cigarette ads from TV, raising the age to buy cigarettes, and increasing taxes, smoking is at about 15 percent now, and is heading down. We need to do the same thing with the fossil fuels industry.”
Electric vehicles are part of California’s plan to reduce CO2, and the state adopted the Zero Emission Vehicle Action Program in 2013. In January, Governor Brown signed Executive Order B-48-18, which sets goals of building 200 hydrogen fueling stations and 250,000 electric vehicle charging stations for 1.5 million EVs by 2025. The goal is 5 million EVs a year by 2030, which means that 40 percent of new vehicles would have to be EVs by then.
Per the ZEV Action Program’s website, in 2017, 5 percent of vehicles sold in California were EVs. There are now about 474,000 EVs in California, so there’s a long way to go to meet the goals, but sales are increasing, and Hochschild thinks it will accelerate.
“100 percent clean energy is solvable—but it’s not a silver bullet—it’s silver buckshot,” Hochschild said. “It is a combined effort of developing clean energy sources, increasing battery storage, lowering demand, and creating a regional grid,” he added. He also said that it’s likely that the first 80 percent of the way will be easier, while the last 20 percent could be more challenging.
So, although things look dire, California is leading the way, and will be doing a lot more in the future.
Acterra is a San Francisco Bay Area 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in Palo Alto that brings people together to create local solutions for a healthy planet.