Despite the renewables building boom, such geothermal, wind and solar projects still do not crowd out fossil fuel–fired generation in the energy mix of, for example, the utility Pacific Gas & Electric. "As many plants as there are, it's not enough," Kelly adds, noting that older, fossil fuel–fired plants would have to be shut down in order for renewables to make up the required percentage.
At the same time, old, inefficient "peaker" units—so-called because they run no more than 77 hours a year when electricity demand in the state is at its highest—will be shut down or replaced by newer natural gas–fired turbines. Such natural gas power plants can be built cheaply and quickly. "Lay down a concrete pad, bring the jet engine, hook it up [to the grid] and you're ready to go," Kelly says. "We are approving fossil-fuel power plants. They're in process. They're just not first in line."
And, of course, California still gets the bulk of its renewable power from solar plants and wind farms built in the 1980s—the last time the federal and state government tried to create a market for renewables—such as Solar Energy Generating Systems power plant near Barstow, Calif. That solar-thermal power plant—built by the BrightSource precursor known as Luz—still pumps out 354 megawatts of power from the sun at full capacity.
The hope is that this time around the renewed interest will not just spur a cleanup of the power supply but also create jobs. "In the last 10 to 15 years California has attracted about 25 percent of global 'cleantech' capital, which resulted in a lot of job growth in that area," says California Labor and Workforce Development Agency Undersecretary Paul Feist. State government numbers suggest that such clean technology has created 10 times more jobs than any other sector of the California economy since 2005. "We are voracious consumers of innovation [in California]. We like technology. We want panels on our roof that make the [electricity] meter go backward."
And companies can be sure of California's commitment. "There's relative certainty in terms of our policy and our commitment to a less carbon-reliant economy. Those things are huge in attracting business investment and technology innovation," Feist says. "When you know the utility is going to have to purchase a percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, that makes all the difference in the world."
At the same time, even if California meets its ambitious target, it may not make a huge dent in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases causing climate change. "At the time the bill was promulgated [in 2006], the belief was that particular level would help stabilize climate change. It seemed feasible and it seemed appropriate," Roberts notes. "Since then, there have been questions about whether that was the right amount."
Plus, California hardly generates power solely in-state. Rather, it draws electricity from states across the U.S. West, including from coal-fired power plants as far away as Idaho—a problem that may get worse as California shuts down its own most polluting power plants. Think of it as outsourcing greenhouse gas pollution, a problem also faced by the 10 northeastern states' RGGI. "Electricity is almost like water. If you've got rivers running into a lake how do you distinguish which river it came from once it gets there?" Roberts notes. "I don't know how they're going to track it."
Given Republican gains in Congress and that party's stance on combating climate change, it seems unlikely the federal government would be willing or able to match California anytime soon. As a result of that inaction, the nation's largest voluntary carbon market—the Chicago Climate Exchange—will be shutting its doors after nine years as the companies who voluntarily participated have decided not to continue. Nor are the United Nations international climate negotiations—set to resume November 29 in Cancun—yielding much progress.