Earth Day Spotlight: State faces heavy lifting to become carbon neutral, but it can be done

Earth Day Spotlight: State faces heavy lifting to become carbon neutral, but it can be done

Editor's Note: The following op-ed on our decarbonization roadmap, The Path to Net Zero: A Decarbonization Roadmap for California, appeared on CalMatters on April 20, 2022. It was co-authored by Caroline Winn, CEO of San Diego Gas & Electric, and David G. Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the University of California, San Diego.

Recognizing the existential threat posed by climate change, California resolved to become carbon neutral by 2045, meaning that in the span of a single generation, the world’s fifth-largest economy aspires to remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as it produces. How we get there in an affordable and equitable way while keeping clean and reliable electricity flowing is one of the most consequential policy questions of our time.

Over the last year, San Diego Gas & Electric, one of the three investor-owned utility companies in California, conducted a robust analysis on how to decarbonize California and the San Diego region. “The Path to Net Zero: A Decarbonization Roadmap for California,” differs from many other studies in that it outlines a way to reach net-zero emissions and shows how that goal can be achieved while keeping the electric grid reliable.

Diversity is key. The optimal path, given what’s known today, is a decarbonization framework centered around expedited electrification, many different types of emissions-free electric generators, along with many clean-burning fuels, such as clean hydrogen. (Hydrogen, when consumed, produces water. It can be made from natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and solar and wind power.) 

Electrification of most California buildings and vehicles is crucial in order to reach reduced-emissions targets. California’s future depends on clean, reliable electricity; it’s unimaginable that customers need to be worried about keeping the lights on. A state-of-the-art electric grid will help ensure needed emissions reductions while maintaining reliability.

California’s electricity consumption could nearly double by 2045. To meet that demand, electric generation capacity must increase four times that of 2020, meaning even more large-scale solar and wind projects will be needed to serve our state. To deliver that power when and where it is needed, the electric grid must expand, particularly high-voltage transmission systems. San Diego Gas & Electric’s role is to provide that grid.  

Our study also contemplates steady growth in rooftop solar, which, when combined with more widespread electric vehicle adoption, requires upgrades to neighborhood electric distribution systems as well. 

Clean hydrogen will be essential for the future. We estimate that by 2045, there will be demand for 6.5 million metric tons of hydrogen, 80% of which will be used to enhance electric grid reliability.

Even with huge efforts to cut emissions, activities such as heavy trucking and some industrial processes still will cause emissions. To offset those, technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere is needed to achieve emissions reduction targets. Implementing this decarbonization framework will require regulatory and political support.

First, state resources must be identified to help fund the clean energy transition so that everyone can benefit. Rate reform or new electricity pricing structures need to encourage the transition to electric vehicles and appliances.

We also need much stronger incentives for research and development at the state and federal levels, because today’s technologies are insufficient to reach net zero by 2045. 

Next, we need to simplify regulatory reviews and approvals. The correct policy framework must be in place to support technologies that already exist, such as solar and wind, that are ready for more widespread development. We must enable new technologies, such as carbon-capture, storage and utilization, and the deployment of decarbonization infrastructure.

Finally, California must incorporate electric system reliability into long-term state planning, create a regional transmission organization that would strengthen reliability by optimizing supply and demand for wholesale electric power across multiple states, and adopt an inclusive technology approach that welcomes a wide range of potential solutions to reduce, eliminate or capture carbon emissions.  

California is at the beginning of an exciting, albeit daunting, transformation. Our state has the opportunity to cement its place as a global sustainability leader by demonstrating that a major economy can decarbonize in a reliable, affordable and equitable way.

Let’s seize that opportunity and work together — across public, private, nonprofit and academic sectors — to get it right.