Gov. Jerry Brown signs clean energy bills on the deck of a hybrid ferry in San Francisco, Sept. 13, 2018.
Gov. Jerry Brown signs clean energy bills on the deck of a hybrid ferry in San Francisco, Sept. 13, 2018. Photo for CALmatters by Dan Morain

In summary

Gov. Brown wants California to be a global leader in reducing or eliminating carbon emissions to fight global warming. But what that entails, and how much it costs, are blanks to be filled in later.

Jerry Brown publicly denies harboring thoughts of the legacy of his record 16 years as California’s governor.

When a reporter asked Brown about it in January, Brown replied, with a characteristic smirk, “Can you tell me the legacy of Goodwin Knight? Or Gov. (Frank) Merriam. Or (George) Deukmejian? Governors don’t have legacies. That’s my No. 1 proposition.”

Brown pointedly excluded his father, Pat Brown, from his list of legacy-bereft predecessors. And it’s quite obvious that Brown yearns to match his father by being remembered as the governor who made California—at least in his mind—a global leader in fighting climate change through reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Just before hosting a global climate-change conference in San Francisco last week, Brown signed a bill decreeing that California’s electrical energy will be 100 percent from renewable or carbon-free sources by 2045.

Simultaneously, he issued an executive order that California be “carbon neutral” by the same date.

“This bill and the executive order put California on a path to meet the goals of Paris and beyond,” Brown declared, referring to the international climate agreement. “It will not be easy. It will not be immediate. But it must be done.”

The legislation, Senate Bill 100 by state Sen. (and U.S. Senate candidate) Kevin de León, a Los Angeles Democrat, expands the current 2030 goal for electric power of 60 percent.

Both pieces of state paper, however, are more statements of lofty intent than quantifiable policy.

The technology to achieve 100 percent carbon-free electric power doesn’t yet exist because the main sources, solar panels and windmills, require the sun to shine and the wind to blow. Making them dependable would require enormous banks of batteries or some other form of reliable storage.

The legislation slyly backtracks on previous policy by, in effect, allowing large hydropower reservoirs to be counted as renewable sources. Even so, some means would have to be found to reliably replace the nearly 50 percent of California’s power now generated by natural gas, coal or nuclear reaction.

And then there’s the cost of such a conversion, even if it’s technically feasible. Opponents of SB 100 noted that California already has some of the nation’s highest utility rates.

Dorothy Rothrock, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, said, for instance, “We do know that middle-class manufacturing jobs will disappear as ever-higher electric rates divert resources from expansions, modernization, wages and product development.”

Brown’s “carbon neutrality” order, if seriously implemented, would be even more difficult to achieve.

While electric-power generation is a major source of carbon emissions, the biggest one, by far, is the automobile.

Californians drive more than 300 billion miles a year. Achieving carbon neutrality would require most, if not all, of that travel to shift into electric-powered transit systems and electric-powered cars.

However, public transit accounts for only about 10 percent of travel now. And while California leads the nation in the sales of “zero-emission vehicles” or ZEVs, they still are tiny fraction of Californians’ cars and current auto purchases, and motorists are not rushing to buy more.

The auto dilemma illustrates the conundrum posed by Brown’s efforts to make California a carbon-neutral state. Although polls, including a new one from the Public Policy Institute of California, indicate that Californians support carbon reduction in principle, they’ve not been fully told what it would take to reach the goal, or what financial sacrifices they would bear to reach it.

Those issues will be confronted, if at all, long after Brown has moved into his carbon-neutral retirement home in the Colusa County foothills.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...