California is moving toward its goal of generating a third of its electrical power from solar, wind and other renewable sources by 2020, as promised five years ago by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Though the numbers are specific, what's left uncertain at this point is how California would reach such lofty goals, how much it would cost and whether it's even possible within the 15-year time frame. The governor's speech was appropriately a statement of grand vision, not a catalog of new regulations and funding schemes. But on Friday, when he unveils his budget proposal, we hope Brown will make the outlines of his plan, and the price, clearer.
Reaching such ambitious targets would undoubtedly require major changes in construction and agricultural practices, in the way cars are designed and used and the way infrastructure is built. It won't come cheap and will require feats of engineering that will be difficult, at best. What's more, although the changes have certain obvious benefits — such as drastically reducing air pollution, which is linked to asthma and other lung diseases — the state is taking a risk that may never come close to paying for itself.
Without a worldwide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the planet will move closer and closer to the scenarios of disaster that scientists have outlined for the coming decades. No one pretends that California can slow or reverse global warming on its own, or even affect its own climate, no matter how diligently it applies itself to the problem. The hope is that by staking out a responsible leadership position, California can persuade other states and nations to undertake the serious and necessary job of curbing climate change.
Of Brown's three new proposals, it would probably be least difficult to increase the use of renewable energy sources to provide electricity. The state would have to put on a new push to create this much clean power, and doing so would encourage utilities to return to the desert, where efforts to build large solar arrays have recently lagged. In his speech, Brown specifically mentioned rooftop solar — small, individual units atop homes and businesses — as another source. California has just about reached, or perhaps even surpassed, the million solar roofs called for by Schwarzenegger.
Rooftop solar is an increasingly attractive option because the price has dropped dramatically over the last decade. It's no longer a radical or prohibitively expensive investment for homeowners, especially because they can reduce their electric bills to practically nothing and even sell excess power back to the utilities.
The state's solar rebate program is winding down and would probably need to be funded for another round to meet these goals. Legislators should revisit the idea, rejected a decade ago, of requiring builders to offer solar as an option. It's cheaper to install solar from the start than to retrofit, and the cost can be wrapped into the mortgage, making it more easily affordable to many buyers.
California will have a bigger job reducing petroleum fuel use by vehicles. Its 2020 goal has been to reduce use of gasoline and diesel by 20%; improving that to 50% 10 years later is a formidable task. There has been talk about installing more charging stations for electric cars and constructing a network of refueling stations for hydrogen fuel cell cars. The technology is available, but the costs for new infrastructure to support a large-scale switch would be high. Brown also mentioned the likelihood of more vehicles powered by compressed natural gas. Natural gas is less of a climate offender than petroleum, but it is still a fossil fuel, and burning it produces carbon dioxide. Over-reliance on it as an alternative to gasoline would mean that down the road, in order to continue combating climate change, California would need to make yet another wrenching transition toward other ways of powering transportation.
The move to cleaner vehicles would clean up a lot of the state's air pollution. But the cars won't be cheap, and the state would have to plan for this potential downside: Construction and maintenance of state roads depends largely on gas taxes, the revenue from which would be drastically reduced under Brown's vision.
It's hard to even gauge the likelihood of meeting Brown's goal of retrofitting existing buildings to use less energy. This could require more advanced lighting systems, double-paned windows, better insulation and other renovations. Still, there is an existing revenue source that could help: The state takes in about $1 billion a year in fees from major utilities and dedicates them to reducing indoor energy consumption. Much of that money has gone toward rebates on energy-efficient appliances and advertising the benefits of energy efficiency; the state might get more bang for its billion bucks by thinking about incentives for larger-scale projects in energy efficiency.
If California's bet on climate change leadership pays off, and the rest of the world steps up, the state could develop technologies and planning techniques sought by other states and nations, making it a center for major industries in the sustainable-energy field and paying Californians back many times over.
But it might not work. The world might not heed the call, and California might be left to deal with the effects of climate change as well as the costs of having tried to fight it. But Brown is right to move forward. Climate change encompasses and eclipses many other environmental issues; scientific reports have beaten the drums with escalating alarm, warning that global warming has the potential to wreak havoc on species, agriculture, trade and human health, and provoke natural and geopolitical disasters on a scale not seen in modern history. Maybe California will lose its wager, but the cost of not trying is too great.