It was unthinkable, not long ago.

For those that still can’t quite believe we could move our country, or our world to renewable energy, note that California, our nation’s most populous state and the world’s 6th largest economy… is getting there. Remarkably, resolutely, even ahead of schedule, if you will.

A New Day

On March 11, 2017, the state reached a historic milestone by meeting roughly 50% of its electricity demand with solar power. The levels were reached for just a few hours that day, but reached it was, and with the ongoing growth of solar and renewable energy it could soon enough become commonplace in the Golden State, and elsewhere.

Further, this event did not even incorporate the other forms of renewable power such as wind, biomass, small hydropower, or geothermal, which are significant contributors to the grid in their own right.

Add those sources to the mix, and another state record was reached around midday (when solar production is at its highest) on March 23, when almost 60% of the state’s needs were met by renewable energy. This is all within the territory of the California Independent System Operator, which manages 80% of California’s grid as well as a small section in Nevada.

The solar milestone was reached primarily from utility-scale solar (solar photovoltaic and solar thermal plants) which met close to 40% of the demand, with rooftop systems from home and businesses providing the rest.

It’s an accomplishment that’s hard to imagine, especially when you think of a state with about 40 million people, covering 164,000 square miles, a huge, vibrant, diverse economy, with farms, ports, deserts, mountains… as well as our nations 3rd largest oil and gas producing state. But if you haven’t been watching, solar’s growth in California has been remarkable, with total capacity growing from less than 1 gigawatt as recently as 2007 to nearly 14 GW by the end of last year.

Bi-partisan Support and Action

Much of this growth has been seeded by California’s legislative body and the creation of their Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), a state-level mandate on utilities to incorporate a specific level of renewable energy over time. It’s a top-down push, and has been instrumental in moving everything forward.

Aggressive from the start, California’s RPS program (highlighted previously on this blog) has repeatedly accelerated its requirements since inception, with the ultimate goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions enough to limit global warming. Established in 2002 with Senate Bill 1078, the mandate required utilities to draw 20% of their electricity from renewable sources by the year 2017. And with that directive, the state support and push for the transition had begun.

It took other factors, solar’s falling installation costs for one (which the RPS influenced), to fully open the door. But along the way, significant progress was made. In 2006, with the original target already in sight, the goal was accelerated to 20% renewables by the year 2010, cutting a full 7 years off of the schedule.

Then in 2008, Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed further by signing an Executive Order requiring “all retail sellers of electricity [to] serve 33% of their load with renewable energy by 2020,” and Democratic governor Jerry Brown signed the new requirements into law in 2011.

In 2015, the RPS was raised yet again and to where it stands today, to 50% renewables by 2030.

And where does the progress stand? So far, according to the California Energy Commission, the state is still ahead of its schedule for meeting the RPS requirements. They estimate that utilities are at 27% renewable energy through 2016.

National Impact of Renewable Portfolio Standards

RPS programs have proven to be an effective, vital element in the effort to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and move our country towards renewable energy. In so doing, electricity supplies become more diverse and dependable; less expensive and more secure; less invasive and more sustainable.

RPS’s are working because beyond forcing the hand of utilities, they also influence conditions to help the home and business owner realize the benefits of going solar. An RPS creates a healthy measure of security for investors, entrepreneurs, planners, developers, et al., by putting in place a support system and roadmap for the growth of this new market. Knowing that there is consistent and measured state-level support for their new industry allows large, mainstream investments to flow faster into the pipeline, fueling advancements and lowering costs to consumers along the way. Better products and lower costs equals faster adaptation.

Beneficially as well, more jobs are being created as a result. California’s RPS has helped create over 200 major energy generation projects since its inception, the majority of which are in areas of high unemployment.

State mandates are also starting to serve as major pillars standing strong against the headwinds coming from Washington D.C. that are attacking efforts to limit global warming. These very well may be instrumental in helping to continue our nation’s clean energy efforts to protect the environment in the face of federal opposition.

In all, 29 states now officially have RPS policies, with Iowa being the first, and another 8 states have “voluntary” plans that serve at least as motivation, if not mandate (see what your state is doing here). Not all RPS policies are the same in their requirements and standards, but all told these policies helped to start the engine, and now continue to push the accelerator.

A Sea Change

So where are these mandates leading us? They are leading us right to 100% renewable energy.

Hawaii has already scaled their program to require 100% renewable energy by the year 2045, and was the first state to do so.

For the isolated island-state, it’s good common sense policy, but game-changing nonetheless. Following their lead, coastal bastions Massachusetts and California have both recently introduced legislation to take that final leap: Massachusetts S. 1849 dictates 100% by 2035, and California’s SB 584 reaches 100% by 2045. The transition is well underway, and the endgame is coming into focus.

If you think these are just audacious moon-shots, note that many cities have also joined the race to 100%, and some are already there (congrats Aspen, Burlington and Greensburg KS!). Pedro J. Pizarro, CEO of Edison International (parent to one of the nation’s largest utilities), was quoted during the recent CERAWeek conference that he believes that yes, it is now possible for California to go 100% renewable.

The Golden State’s RPS has already been increased 3 times with a 4th in the works, due to the goals being reached well before the deadlines. Proof that these programs not only work, but work at a pace needed to combat climate change and push towns, cities and states toward what was previously unthinkable: 100% renewable energy in our lifetime.

As Pizarro concluded: “…eventually there will be 100 percent.”

Photo Credit: Ken Lund, CC-BY-SA