Environmental and NIMBY concerns will likely render the legislation largely symbolic.
The environment is a hot topic in California these days. It is the one-year anniversary of the Refugio Oil Spill, which was marked by indictments as well as a scathing regulatory review. In addition, with the primaries just three weeks away, political candidates are filling the airwaves and mailboxes with testimonials to their strong environmental records. For those who served in the State Senate or Assembly in 2015, their proof of environmental stewardship often includes a reference to their “yes” vote on SB 350, the latest in a series of landmark climate change legislation in California.
California has a long and proud tradition of leading by example on critical environmental issues, including air quality and climate change. Invoking that tradition in May 2014, Governor Brown called for a comprehensive update to the State’s greenhouse gas emissions reduction program, including the energy sector, to be designed with substantial stakeholder and public input by the end of 2016. Less than a year later Governor Brown completely preempted his own policy making process and called for 50% of California’s electricity to be generated from renewable energy sources by 2030, essentially dictating the provisions of the new energy sector program. With legacies of their own to burnish, legislators wasted no time in passing SB 350, which included the 50% renewable energy mandate. Unfortunately, not only does this purported policy making process set the wrong example, but the myopic focus on a rapid boost in renewable energy does as well.
Although the climate change legislation was endorsed by numerous environmental groups and the wind and solar power industries, it is not nearly as green as its proponents claim. Solar and wind farms have well-documented negative environmental impacts that will pit environmentalist against environmentalist throughout the planning and design process for any proposed large-scale renewable project. Moreover, even if the environmental (and technical challenges) associated with increasing renewable energy could be overcome in the next fourteen years, the solar and wind power industries will have increasing difficulty finding “backyards” where they can build their large farms. For these reasons alone, the recent climate change legislation will not make California meaningfully greener over the next fourteen years. Rather than taking a victory lap for flawed and likely symbolic legislation, our legislators should be going back to the drawing board.
Fifty Shades of Grayish Green
There is much to recommend large-scale renewable energy. Solar and wind farms reduce our dependence on finite fossil fuels and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions when generating electricity.
The green in large-scale renewable energy, however, is tinged with lots of gray. Renewable energy comes with several environmental costs that its supporters would prefer to ignore. First, as has been widely reported, solar and wind farms, including those here in California, kill large numbers of birds (including many iconic and “special status” species) and other wildlife. Second, renewable energy generally cannot supply sufficient power continuously. One approach to mitigating this shortcoming involves using batteries to store excess production for later use. But the materials used to make batteries must be mined, and the batteries themselves must eventually be recycled. Again, green is tinged with gray. Third, California environmentalists have been heavily influenced by the views of John Muir, who celebrated the mystical qualities of natural beauty. Efforts to build wind and solar installations in many scenic locations throughout the State, especially offshore, will pit environmentalists against one another. The push for renewables, therefore, will be slowed by greens seeing red.
NIMBYs are Nimble
A renewable energy project need not be located in a scenic area to attract the ire of environmentalists or NIMBYs — those who believe in development so long as it occurs somewhere other than in their (broadly defined) backyard. Having led the nation in wind and solar energy production for the past decade, California has already built or started planning installations in many of its most remote backyards. As a result, NIMBYs have been blocking progress on more recent renewable energy projects across the State for the past several years. (California provides many legal tools and avenues for individuals and groups to challenge renewable energy projects). As the list of suitable parcels shrinks, this trend will only get worse. Everyone, it seems, has a backyard to protect. Thus, even if electrical grids could be upgraded and storage solutions fielded in the next decade, there is little chance that large-scale renewable energy projects will be able to overcome environmental objections and NIMBYIsm just as quickly. California’s renewable energy timeline, therefore, may signify nothing more than an unrealistic aspiration.
Back to the Drawing Board
There is no denying that many Californians care about combatting climate change and want our government to lead by example. But reflexive legislation that fails to consider and weigh the environmental costs and benefits of proposed policies and sets unrealistic goals should not be mistaken for leadership. Instead, it’s vacuous and disingenuous, creating a false sense of unblemished environmental progress.
If Californians want to truly lead on climate change, we need to have a more reasoned and inclusive debate about the role of our State in combatting the global challenge of climate change, whether we are building a model that other governments will emulate (given that leadership requires others to follow), the full set of options for addressing greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector as well as every other sector of our economy, and the economic and environmental costs and benefits of each of those options. Asking and answering these really hard questions would show true leadership.
Yes, there would be sound and fury if we chose this course. It could challenge conventional California wisdom that certain energy sources are indisputably better than others. It could anger industries that emit greenhouse gases but have thus far escaped meaningful scrutiny. It could upset regulators and confuse the political parties by forcing a debate over the virtues of taxes, markets, and incentives in achieving environmental goals. It could force people to admit that there is a line between leadership and folly. But at the end of the day, the policies emerging from this tempest would signify something far more meaningful – comprehensive, reasoned, and realistic environmental safeguards that other governments could adopt. Let’s start having this discussion.