By 2045, California could get 100% of its electricity from zero-carbon sources. On Wednesday, the state senate voted to pass SB100, a bill that speeds up the current goals for renewable energy–the state will now aim to hit 50% renewable electricity by 2026, and 60% by 2030–and then targets 100% carbon-free production in 27 years.
If Jerry Brown signs the bill, the new law will be a big deal. “This is really a groundbreaking moment in the debate about how much we can replace fossil fuels,” says Bruce Nilles, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute.
The first goals that states set for renewable electricity over a decade ago were small–10%, 15%–and even then critics questioned whether it would be feasible to use so much clean power. More recently, Hawaii set an ambitious goal to move to 100% renewable electricity by 2045, and a commitment to become carbon neutral. But, as an island, Hawaii has a unique situation, and a much smaller population. California is the fifth largest economy in the world. Even some other countries with ambitious goals are working at smaller scales; Denmark, which aims to run on 100% renewable electricity by 2035, has a population about eight times smaller than California.
Now the state has committed to figuring out how an economy so large will eventually run on 100% clean electricity. “There are some important technical pieces that have to be put together over the next 25 years,” Nilles says. “But we now have this amazing track record of showing we can do this much faster and quicker and cheaper than anyone thought was possible.”
California met a major goal to cut emissions four years early, and is likely to also hit its interim goal to reach 50% renewable electricity early. (Even the goal of the Clean Power Plan, despite Trump’s attempts to roll it back, is happening ahead of schedule.) The price of solar and wind power has dropped dramatically and will be cheaper than fossil fuels everywhere by 2020. The cost of battery technology, to store electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, is also dropping. New technology can help the grid charge homes and electric cars when renewable energy is most abundant.
“What is really important is now that we have a goal, this will unleash the creativity of all the folks who are designing the endgame for fossil fuels,” says Nilles. “Setting the goal has just been, over and over again, so very important. Because then that sends a very clear message to investors, to entrepreneurs, to our research facilities: Okay, let’s get it done. Let’s do it in the cleanest, cheapest, most equitable way possible.”
California’s bill, unlike its earlier rules, doesn’t limit the technologies that can be used strictly to traditional renewables. The target for 2030, to get 60% of the state’s electricity from renewable sources, will come from sources such as solar, wind, geothermal, ocean waves, or small hydropower. But the remaining 40% can come either from those sources or from other zero-carbon resources.
“We’re going to continue to see exponential growth in solar and wind and geothermal, proven technologies, but the bill is written in such a way that it also creates an opportunity for new businesses and new entrepreneurs to come in and create energy as long as they can meet the requirement of being a carbon-free source of electricity,” says Dan Jacobson, state director of the nonprofit Environment California, which led the campaign for SB 100.
Taking the step to clean up electricity will also have broader impacts on the state’s emissions as more people begin driving electric cars and trucks. Transportation is now the largest source of the state’s emissions.
Now that California has taken this step, other states are likely to follow. A handful of other states, including Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Washington, and Pennsylvania, are already considering 100% clean electricity goals. “I think it removes the uncertainty and provides a huge boost of confidence to others who are thinking about doing the same thing, because they’re not going to have to go first,” says Nilles. In some cases, it might happen even without a mandate. Already, many states get a significant percentage of electricity from clean sources. Iowa produced 37% of its electricity from wind in 2017; by 2020, it could produce enough wind power to cover 100% of consumer use.