California could accurately be called many things, but “unambitious” isn’t one of them. This week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that commits the state to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2045 and issued an executive order calling for California to be carbon neutral by that same deadline.
Of course, California already generates about a third of its energy from renewable sources such as solar, wind and hydroelectric power. On the sunniest, windiest days, as much as half of the state’s power comes from non-fossil fuel sources.
The state of Hawaii, a handful of cities and even some small countries have weaned themselves from fossil fuels or are committed to doing so, but never on such a massive scale.
Getting to 100 percent in such a populous state will be tricky. For one thing, the sun doesn’t always shine (i.e., at night) and the wind doesn’t always blow. Drought-prone California doesn’t always have an abundance of water resources either -- certainly not enough to power the whole state.
And the world's biggest battery can power about 30,000 homes. That's impressive, but California's population is about 39 million.
Nuclear power is not technically renewable, although it would help the state go carbon neutral. But South Carolina’s $9 billion failure to build a nuclear-fueled future shows how costly and risky it can be to bet a state’s energy needs on a single power source.
And some estimates suggest that the amount of land needed to power California through solar and wind energy would be impractical, if not impossible, to obtain. In fact, it could devastate fragile ecosystems, which would severely diminish the environmental benefits of renewable energy.
But California’s goal is still a good one. If nothing else, it's likely to spur innovation and drive down the cost of emerging energy technology.
And really, it’s a goal that all states will eventually need to adapt. After all, if an energy source is not “renewable” it’s eventually going to run out, whether that takes decades or centuries.
Climate change related to burning fossil fuels is an even more imminent threat. Here in Charleston, sea levels are rising and some data show that storms may be getting stronger. If the planet keeps getting warmer, those challenges are likely to grow even more severe.
A 100-percent switch to renewables may cost an eye-popping amount of money in the short-term. But over the long-term, solar power is among the cheapest sources of electricity, for example, even compared to options such as coal and natural gas.
Ignoring climate change costs a lot as well. In 2017, for example, the United States spent a record $300 billion on natural disaster recovery. Not all of those weather events can be blamed conclusively on climate change, but nature’s costly destructive power should not be underestimated.
To prepare for a wetter future and deal with existing flooding problems, Charleston officials estimate the city needs about $2 billion in new infrastructure. To put that number in perspective, it’s the entire city budget for about 11 years.
And that’s one city.
Rather than embrace a renewable energy future, South Carolina has made it difficult for homeowners to take advantage of solar power. As a Southern state, we ought to put our abundant sunshine to good use -- hurricane season aside.
But state law caps the number of electric customers who can earn credits on their power bills for generating solar electricity. Most utilities are at or near that cap, which the Legislature refused to lift before the end of the last session.
Duke Energy, which serves customers in the Upstate, struck a tentative deal to let more homeowners participate, but it’s still pending regulatory approval and it lasts only until early next year. A legislative fix is needed to cover the state’s other utilities.
South Carolina could also do more to incentivize a utility-scale switch to renewable energy and efforts to reduce energy consumption.
Maybe South Carolina isn’t ready to go 100 percent renewable. California might not be either, even by 2045. But we ought to tear down any legislative roadblocks that prevent a gradual and sensible embrace of solar energy.
A safe and dry future for the state’s coastal cities, including Charleston, might depend on it.