On Clean Energy, California Public Utilities Beat The Bigs

Now the full story can be told. California’s bold renewable portfolio standard – 33 percent green electricity by 2020 – has been the focus of a lot of attention. But the press releases and even the stories (ours too, we confess) too often treat the state’s big three investor-owned utilities (IOUs) – Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric – as the only players in the game. They aren’t.

A new report from the Union of Concern Scientists paints a more complete picture of California’s pursuit of clean energy, providing insight into the progress made by the state’s publicly owned utilities (POUs). These POUs include California’s third- and fifth-largest power providers, Los Angeles Water and Power and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. In all, the POUs deliver about a quarter of the state’s electricity – and despite not having been under the same RPS dictates as the investor owned utilities until last year, they’re driving big investment in renewables. 

california renewable portfolio standard

image via Union of Concerned Scientists

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists report, the 10 largest POUs have jacked up their RPS-eligible power from 4.1 percent in 2003 to 18.8 percent in 2010. As the report noted, “These investments replaced portions of the electricity the POUs purchased from coal, large hydropower and nuclear facilities.” About 39 percent of the POUs’ 2010 renewables came from wind. Wind power plants in California, most built after 2002, accounted for 24 percent of in-state RPS-eligible purchases by these utilities.

That overall 2010 figure for the POUs actually bested the IOUs, who were at 17 percent at that point, falling short of the 20 percent goal then in place. When the state upped the 2020 goal to 33 percent and brought the POUs more or less fully into the RPS program in April 2011, it gave everyone a little wiggle room on the 20 percent goal: All utilities are now expected to increase the amount of renewable generation sold to customers to an average of 20 percent per year from January 1, 2011, to December 31, 2013; 25 percent by December 31, 2016; and 33 percent by December 31, 2020.

But the report makes a point that’s worth highlighting: Just as important as a utility’s raw renewable total is how that number was – and will be – achieved. Long-term contracts or even better yet, owning projects outright, are the things that really drive the development of new renewable energy resources. Some of the POUs did made those kinds of investments to boost their renewables quotient, but others relied on short-term deals.

“Such short-term investments do not provide adequate financial security to developers and therefore have little impact on promoting the development of new clean energy facilities,” the report read.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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