California is decarbonizing its grid. Now it needs to address cars.


California has been a clear leader in deployment of solar and other forms of renewable energy. While it has not reached the very high portions of wind that smaller Plains States have boasted, the The Golden State has been a leader in terms of raw deployment, backed by renewable energy mandates for utilities as well as policies to support residential solar and battery deployment.

And those policies are paying off. A new report by non-profit Next 10 not only confirms what the state’s renewable portfolio standard updates have shown, that it is rapidly decarbonizing the electricity sector.

Solar has played a leading role here. Next 10 states that in 2017 solar overcame wind as the state’s largest renewable power source, representing 10% of its total mix. pv magazine’s calculation of raw data provided by the U.S. Department of Energy shows that solar – both large-scale and behind-the-meter – rose to meet 14% of all in-state demand in 2018, however it is not clear if we are using the same methodology.

Either way, solar largely drove total in-state renewable energy growth rates of over 20% from 2013 through 2017, and a stunning 162% increase in renewable energy output over a 10-year period. This has led Next 10 to conclude that at current growth rates California is set to meet its ambitious targets for RPS-compliant renewables to represent 50% of electricity generation in 2026 and 60% in 2030, “with relative ease”.

Battery deployment is also on schedule. California easily the nation’s largest energy storage market, and the roughly 1.5 GW of energy storage to be procured by the state’s large investor-owned utilities is above the 1.325 GW requirement set by AB 2514.

Some of the optimism for the future can come from California’s Community Choice Aggregators, which are taking over procurement for an increasing portion of the state’s electric load from investor-owned utilities under mandates to decarbonize faster than is required by state law.



That is the good news. The bad news is that even with this progress in the electricity sector, Next 10 says that given current rates of decarbonization California is not on track to meet its 2030 or 2050 goals for greenhouse gas reductions.

And while the report looks at many sectors, one problem stands out as obvious: cars. The transportation sector alone represents 41% of California’s emissions, with passenger vehicles making up the bulk of that. In 2017 the state saw both a record number of vehicles registered at 31 million and also a record number of vehicle miles travelled. This has been accompanied by falling participation in public transit ridership, amid a new boom in ridesharing services.

The net result is that despite nationally leading fuel efficiency standards, greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector continue to rise. Nor have electric vehicles (EVs) yet made much of a dent. California has a higher rate of EV sales than the national average, but hybrids and EVs still make up a small portion of the total vehicles on the road.

One challenge is that automobiles don’t turn over every year, but can stay on the road a decade or longer, meaning that emissions from cars sold today are locked in for many years to come. And this leads to debate over the path forward. While some are calling for a more rapid electrification of automobiles, the California Air Resources Board and others have framed the problem in terms of a need to reduce vehicle miles travelled.

The solution is likely to be a combination of both. Either way, the report serves as a stark warning that for deep emissions reductions, decarbonizing electricity is only the beginning.

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