Despite the Trump administration's determination to "Make Coal Great Again," the movement to get off fossil fuels has seen significant victories this year. In fact, some climate optimists seem to think the market advantages of renewable energy are so clear that the days of fossil fuels are numbered. The clean energy revolution will happen on its own, a simple matter of dollars and cents.
Of course, the Trump White House is doing all that it can to halt progress. It continues to put a thumb on the scale by subsidizing coal, rolling back rules that protect the public from oil and gas pollution, and even attempting to undermine the federal government’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.
But there's a different message coming from state and local utility regulators, who are looking at ways to get off fossil fuels. Last fall, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) rejected a plan to refurbish a SoCal Edison gas plant in Santa Barbara County. The commission was presented with strong evidence that solar and storage could provide electricity to the public for far less than the costly upgrades that would have been necessary at the plant. The PUC made a similar decision in October 2017 when it rejected a plan from utilities to invest in a gas power plant in Oxnard, and instead ordered the company to take steps to replace that plant with renewable energy and storage. It was a victory for the largely Latino community that waged a tenacious four-year battle against the plant.
The momentum continues. This month, the Glendale City Council is exploring renewable energy as an alternative to repowering the Grayson gas plant. Unlike the CPUC decision, this move is not based exclusively on costs to ratepayers; one of the primary concerns raised by activists is the impact such a plant would have on air pollution and climate change. But given the trends in renewable costs, it is likely that there will be cost savings for the public here as well.
Corporate special interests—in this case, big utilities along with fossil fuel and nuclear interests—have an outsized influence in our current political system. And they will fight to the death.
Some of these decisions are coming about because regulators are responding to the financial costs associated with burning fossil fuels. For years, the criticism of renewable energy transition plans came down to money: Wind and solar aren’t as cheap as oil or fracked gas. But in some places, that supposed economic advantage is gone. In fact, a recent analysis conducted for Food & Water Watch in Los Angeles shows that the city can actually save money by transitioning quickly to 100 percent renewable energy, by prioritizing rooftop solar while increasing demand response, energy efficiency, and storage.
These decisions to move off fossil fuels are not just happening in Democratic-leaning areas like California. Republican regulators in Arizona recently implemented a nine-month moratorium on gas plant construction, and they are taking a serious look at proposals to increase renewable development and demand response programs in a state that has largely been powered by fossil fuels.
Some might see all of this news, along with reports that renewables will be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020, and assume that a 100 percent renewable future is inevitable. Unfortunately, very few decisions in politics are based solely on economics, science or reason. Corporate special interests—in this case, big utilities along with fossil fuel and nuclear interests—have an outsized influence in our current political system. And they will fight to the death.
A clean energy transformation will be better for workers, families, our air, and our climate. But the transition off fossil fuels and toward 100 percent renewable energy will require people to hold their elected officials accountable
Look at what's happened just weeks after the election of New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who campaigned on a promise to support a transition to 100 percent renewable energy. But instead of seizing the moment to pass an aggressive renewable energy bill, the state legislature passed a plan to force ratepayers to lay out as much as $300 million per year to prop up nuclear power plants. In order to cover for this blatant corporate subsidy, they also passed a clean energy bill that supporters say will get the state to 50 percent renewable electricity by 2030. Unfortunately, a careful analysis of the bill reveals that it allows regulators to cap renewable energy development at seven percent of consumers’ electricity bills. This sleight of hand creates a massive loophole that could keep New Jersey residents on fossil fuels indefinitely.
The same week this bill passed the legislature, a California company announced a plan to build a massive, 1,200 MW gas power plant in Northern New Jersey. Though the power would be delivered to Manhattan, the greenhouse gas emissions would originate in New Jersey.
There is no doubt we have the facts on our side: A clean energy transformation will be better for workers, families, our air, and our climate. But the transition off fossil fuels and toward 100 percent renewable energy will require people to hold their elected officials accountable, and demand a rapid and deliberate transition to clean, renewable energy. In some communities, like Oxnard and Glendale, it is already happening.