Influencers Opinion

Transition to clean energy will fall to California’s drivers, Influencers say

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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Saving the planet is about to get much harder.

A few years ago, California lawmakers developed an aggressive plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. So far, we’re ahead of schedule, mainly because renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydropower have allowed the state’s electricity grid to move away from traditional fossil fuels.

California’s often-maligned utility companies deserve credit for driving much of that shift, along with changes in construction codes to incentivize more energy efficient buildings.

But now it’s our turn. The next, bigger step in the transition to clean energy falls to us, more specifically to California’s drivers.

“California is a global climate leader... But there’s one area where we need to continue to make improvements, and that’s our vehicle emissions,” said Kate Gordon, director of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Office of Planning and Research, who pointed to increased use of electric vehicles and affordable housing as key components of a solution. “Today, transportation accounts for 51 percent of all California’s emissions – and the number keeps rising.”

State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) reinforced the importance of approaching the challenge on multiple fronts.

“While we move toward less polluting cars, we must also make different land use decisions that enable people to leave their cars in the driveway,” said Allen, who is chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. “We need to build homes nearer to jobs and invest in transit. We need to better align all of our state goals – climate, housing, and transportation – to be sure our limited state resources achieve the biggest bang for the buck.”

But other Influencers warned that the transition would be more difficult for some Californians than others.

“The impact upon drivers is already upon them in higher in higher prices at the pump due to fuels being subject to cap and trade,” said longtime Republican consultant Rob Stutzman, a senior adviser to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. “As with all of California’s aspirational climate goals, the path to fewer auto emissions will be increasingly expensive and economically regressive.”

Stanislaus County Supervisor Kristin Olsen pointed to geographic challenges as well.

“California’s aggressive climate change goals will continue to increase costs for California drivers – through higher gas prices, especially – but they are also expediting technological innovation in a way that many drivers look forward to,” said Olsen, who is the state’s former Republican Assembly leader. “The question is how to reduce the cost impact of our state’s climate goals, particularly on people in inland California who are much more reliant on driving than people in urban and coastal communities.”

Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) was more blunt.

“California drivers will pay more at the pump, have to travel greater distances to work, and spend more time stuck in traffic,” Gallagher said. “Hope you can afford a Tesla!”

Other Influencers argued that the market for electric vehicles could be dramatically expanded while still accommodating financial and logistical concerns.

“We need to build a network of charging stations throughout the region and ensure that chargers are powered around the clock by the most affordable renewable energy money can buy,” said Danielle Osborn Mills, California director of the American Wind Energy Association. “Utilities will need to invest in wholesale wind and solar energy from the windiest and sunniest areas of the West, and modernize our transmission system to bring those renewables to California customers and drivers at lowest cost.”

Resources Legacy Fund President Michael Mantell emphasized the benefits of moving the state’s transportation sector to alternative energy sources.

“California drivers… will be able to choose cleaner transportation systems, including expanded and more convenient public transit; opportunities to live in communities where they can walk or bike to work, school, and daily errands instead of driving; and the chance to save thousands of dollars each year by not spending as much on cars and gasoline, energy for their homes, or water,” Mantell said.

While Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association agreed with those goals, she also cautioned that the changeover should not happen in an overly disruptive manner and called for a collaborative approach to ease the transition.

“We recognize and embrace the importance and promise of renewable energy sources. But… if we prematurely make it even harder to produce oil in the state, we will do more harm than good,” Reheis-Boyd said. “The question we should be asking ourselves is how do we come together as one California to drive the most immediate improvements in carbon emission reductions, economic security and reliable access to energy for all?”

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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