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December 14, 2015 | California: The Shining Star of Renewable Energy

50% renewable by 2030! What is it about California that they are able to set these targets and achieve them? Or is it simply because of the forward thinking people of Silicon Valley? They set a target for businesses to achieve 20% renewable by 2020 and they have already achieved 25%. It is at least partly due to Governor Jerry Brown, who has managed to mobilize the entire state into a frenzy about climate change and the need to start using renewable energy. Utilities and businesses that usually consider a renewable portfolio standard to be a burden are embracing the change in California. 

First and foremost is educating the public. Governor Brown says, "We need to speak to the low-income kids with asthma on the street in Los Angeles that are constantly using their inhaler." These daily concerns are vital to engaging the public. It is too difficult to explain the concepts of kWh and Renewable Portfolio Standards to them as they are dealing with a bigger personal problem of asthma; however, if CARB (California Air Resources Board) were to approach them asking to help pass government policy that will help ease their asthma, they are forced to care. At least some of them will feel compelled to share their stories with legislators, who will consequently try to enact climate and air quality policies to mitigate air pollution. This positive feedback loop only has the effect of galvanizing more voters and policymakers alike about the threats posed by climate change. Eventually, votes may be swayed due to that person’s position on climate change.

While it is well known how that Renewable Portfolio Standards, Renewable Energy Credits, Feed in Tariffs, etc., should be used to proliferate renewable energy, the policies must be transparent. Tom Steyer, the famous philanthropist and environmentalist makes note of the fact that businesses in California are able to comprehend policy statements. It is easy to neglect the wording of policy, but if passed with the perfect balance of art and science as in California, it has a greater potential to be successful.

Environmental targets must also be analyzed carefully and set with scientific backing, which the California government has in spades. Educational institutions and scientists play a huge role in creating targets that are high yet attainable.

This transparency and skilled target setting are the keys that have garnered business support. When companies are willing to commit to these standards, there is very little backlash for environmental policies. This clarity also creates a collection of people and businesses that believe the change is necessary. Utilities recognize the importance of renewable portfolio standards that will systematically eliminate fossil fuels. With support from utilities, businesses, and environmentalists, legislators are pushed into enacting climate policy.

We now know what makes California’s energy model work. How can we apply that to the rest of the world? There are numerous countries and states globally the same size as California, however with even more natural resources. Educating the public and setting difficult, yet attainable targets based on scientific feasibility are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the trial and error that is sometimes climate policy. California’s success is worth studying to discover where else in the United States and around the world similar policies can be implemented.


Rohith Desikan is one of Conergy's Future Solar Leaders. Rohith is a first year Master's student studying Civil and Environmental Engineering with a concentration in Atmosphere/Energy at Stanford University.