Catalyst Fall 2015


Triumph and Tribulation on California’s Energy Frontier

Nearly 4,000 UCS members and activists in California sent postcards such as the one above to their legislators in support of clean energy policy.

By Adrienne Alvord

This September, California passed landmark legislation establishing that fully 50 percent of the state’s electricity will be generated from renewable resources like wind and solar energy by 2030, and the state will double its energy efficiency economy-wide. It’s a remarkable achievement that offers proof of the enormous role renewable energy can play in powering the world's largest economies considering that California’s would rank eighth among nations.  

The Union of Concerned Scientists played a vital role in the passage of this legislation by providing smart lead testimony, groundbreaking analytics, and translating complex issues into language legislators and the public could understand. One of the amazing aspects of this debate, indicative of the maturity of the state’s renewable energy sector, is how widely the 50 percent renewable goal was accepted—allowing most of the discussion to center on the best ways to achieve it. That was a conversation to which UCS analysts were particularly well suited, and their input made a big difference.

As notable as this achievement is in lighting a path for the rest of the nation and the world, it is also a cautionary tale. California Governor Jerry Brown had outlined a vision that also included a 50 percent reduction in oil usage by 2030. Unfortunately, this provision had to be tabled for the year due primarily to the scale and ferocity of the oil industry’s campaign against it.  

Much of this campaign was waged by the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), which ran a massive and highly dishonest campaign that included the prominent use of a front group masquerading as a consumer organization and outright lies designed to stir up fear and paranoia. The goal of WSPA’s hail of misleading and just-plain-false information was clearly to pressure lawmakers to reject this provision, and its strategy succeeded—for now. Fortunately, however, Governor Brown has significant executive powers to ensure that California continues to reduce its need for petroleum.

California’s energy triumph and oil setback both hold potent lessons for the rest of the country: first, that we can set and achieve ambitious targets that will help reduce global warming emissions and, equally important, that we will need to redouble our efforts to successfully overcome the unscrupulous scare tactics of entrenched fossil fuel interests.

Adrienne Alvord is the UCS California and Western States Director. Read more from Adrienne on our blog, The Equation.