Utility to California: Move faster on clean energy

Electricity purveyor pushes for swifter progress on electrification.
By Julian Spector

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(Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

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Change in the power sector often plays out like this: Ambitious policy proposals prompt utility pushback, something finally gets enacted and utilities slow-walk the execution, and then maybe policymakers or regulators step in to speed things up, or maybe not.

California has already gone through vigorous debates over climate policy and enacted some first-in-the-nation laws, including a binding 100 percent clean electricity deadline for 2045. But now we’re seeing something new and unusual: a utility telling the state that it needs to move faster on the transition to clean energy.

The utility in question is Southern California Edison, which provides electricity to 5 million customers in the area surrounding Los Angeles. As Jeff St. John reports, SCE recently published a call to action that points out how California’s currently active policies fall short of the state’s own 2030 carbon-reduction goals.

The results of its analysis of the policies now in place for reducing emissions from electricity generation, transportation and buildings are unsettling. If the state can’t speed up its historical pace of reduction of 1 percent of emissions per year, it will be 90 million metric tons short of its 2030 target of no more than 260 MMT across its economy, the report states. Even the existing carbon-reduction policies now in place will leave California 30 million metric tons short of that target.
(Edison International)

Pedro J. Pizarro, president and CEO of SCE parent company Edison International, even got on the phone with Jeff to emphasize the urgent need for action.

We’re now eight years and three months away from 2030, so you can’t have policy taking five years to be implemented, because by then it’s too late. […] Now that we understand where the economy needs to head and how a big part of that will be clean electricity to electrify a number of sectors, how do we get there?” 

This is a reminder for California that being a clear leader on clean energy policy is not the same as doing enough to actually decarbonize on schedule.

  • Setting a target is not enough. 
  • Passing a suite of supporting policies is not enough. 
  • The ultimate measurement of success is how much carbon bubbles out of California’s economy.

But why should a utility spend its time and energy drawing attention to the gap between California’s promises and actions?

It’s unwise to discuss utility action without the context of utility incentive structures. SCE is an electric-only utility, meaning it does not also sell gas, à la Pacific Gas & Electric.

  • That means SCE has great reason to be excited about a future where its core product becomes the dominant energy source for transportation and buildings. 
  • The company is already building an $800 million electric vehicle charging infrastructure program, the largest of its kind in the country. That’s just a taste of what could be coming.

Many of SCE’s proposals to fix California’s gaps involve spending more money, faster, on low-carbon infrastructure. More EV chargers, more building electrification, more clean power plants.

Fast-tracking all of that in the current decade comports with the evidence-based view that the 2020s are the decisive decade” to make rapid progress on carbon reduction before too much warming is locked in.

All of which makes me wonder why we don’t see more utilities seizing this opportunity to advocate for the public good — and their own bottom line simultaneously. The upside seems far more attractive than, say, tricking jurisdictions into approving unnecessary gas plants.

That’s not to say that a utility’s idea of how to conduct the energy transition is necessarily the right one. There’s plenty of room for debate over the specifics of how this works. But it’s clear that California needs to accelerate its climate program, and SCE chose to prioritize that message.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.