In summary

California needs to move more quickly toward cleaner, safer, more reliable and affordable energy sources.

By Kevin Sagara

Kevin Sagara is chairman of San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Gas, kevinsagara@sempra.com.

Chris Cramer, Special to CalMatters

Chris Cramer is past chair of the California Restaurant Association and California Craft Brewers Association, ccramer@karlstrauss.com.

As essential service providers, utilities are responsible for helping to ensure the health and well-being of our communities. The weight of that responsibility has gotten heavier as climate change and the pandemic take its toll on our beautiful state and the people who live here.  

As summers become hotter, droughts longer, forests drier and wildfires more destructive, pressures are also mounting on the electrical system – the backbone of our economy and quality of life. 

It’s unimaginable that the world’s fifth largest economy is worried about keeping the lights on, when many California businesses are already struggling for survival because of COVID-19.  For example, the pandemic has decimated our state’s restaurant industry, which has generated more sales tax revenue than any other industry, nearly $7 billion annually. It has similarly devastated California’s craft breweries, which contribute $9.01 billion annually to the state’s economy and pay more than $906 million in state and local taxes. 

Many of the 90,000 restaurants owned by independent proprietors and 1,050 craft breweries are fighting to stay afloat. About 1.5 million workers in these industries are also struggling to make ends meet. Additionally, more than 50% of California’s restaurants and craft breweries are owned by people of color, who are disproportionately impacted by our worsening climate. 

Recent rolling blackouts – the root causes of which were identified in a newly released report – were yet another reminder of how critical a reliable energy system is to our economy and the ability to keep vital businesses open, generating revenue and providing jobs. 

For California to rebound economically and successfully address the growing severity of climate change, a cohesive and effective roadmap to achieve cleaner, safer, more reliable and affordable energy is required: 

  • More renewable energy and flexible generation. California will continue to excel in producing renewable energy.  But we must solve how to make use of the oversupply of solar power produced mid-day. Parallel investments in long-duration energy storage, fuel cells and existing natural gas power plants, which over time can be converted to more clean fuels like hydrogen and renewable natural gas, are key. Natural gas infrastructure backs up renewables and is an affordable second energy system, especially for the state’s restaurant industry. Decarbonizing it while creating more resiliency means the lights stay on when the sun isn’t shining or the wind blowing. Let’s also take a look at using more demand response technologies that conserve energy when demand is the highest. As an added benefit, CO2 emissions are reduced at the same time.
  • A safer, more resilient electric grid. Additional innovation, technology implementation, strategic undergrounding and ongoing enhancements to continue to operate safely matters. Why? Consider that 90 million metric tons of carbon dioxide have been emitted so far this wildfire season. By comparison, the entire electric system produces approximately 60 million tons of CO2 annually.  Preventing wildfires means safer communities and better air.
  • Cleaner transportation. While in state electricity accounts for just 9% of emissions, transportation is woefully behind at 41% and must be addressed if we are to meet the state’s climate goals. Air quality will improve when we pick up the adoption pace of electric vehicles.  
  • Affordable energy. Evidence of severe systemic disparities confirms that we must maintain affordability. By investing in research and deployment of new, cost-effective technologies, California leads in developing renewable electricity. Let’s do the same for the natural gas grid, transportation, agriculture, industry and buildings. No one technology or solution will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all these sectors and putting all our eggs in one basket isn’t practical or smart. California is a forerunner in the climate change fight and should make sure our climate policies can be replicated.  Affordability is central to this.  

The exact path to 100% zero-carbon electricity is unknown but must assure safety, reliability, resiliency and affordability. While we push to accelerate decarbonization, we must also strive to ensure the present survival and ultimately, the revival of our cherished California restaurant and craft brewing industries which help define our state’s unique character.

California is an innovation powerhouse. Now is the time for action. California needs to move more quickly toward cleaner, safer, more reliable and affordable energy outcomes.

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