All Eyes on California

All Eyes on California

By Gilee Corral, July 2015.

Chartering a dual path of progressive climate policy and economic growth has put California in the spotlight, with the world watching to see how—or if—we can keep it up. At the Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s recent Energy and Sustainability Summit, the message was clear: rather than stifling growth, California’s aggressive environmental policy is nurturing a vibrant, expanding market in clean tech and renewable energy.

Tom Steyer, energy advocate and philanthropist, said in his keynote address that California is a “mecca for clean energy technology” because of its progressive economics and strong, continuous political leadership on the environmental front. In addition to boasting “the largest advanced energy economy in the United States,” California’s gross domestic product just outpaced Brazil’s as the 7th largest in the world, Steyer said.

But this is no time to sit on our laurels. Addressing a crowd representing “three trillion dollars in profits,” Steyer urged his fellow business leaders that “we are not going big enough” on climate change. California Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin De León agreed: “I think we set the standard globally, but we have a lot more work to do.”

With the international climate summit, Conference of the Parties (COP 21), looming on the horizon, China and other countries area paying close attention to Governor Brown’s 50-50-50 goals to advance AB 32 to the next level, and how California’s economy is responding. Senator De León’s bill SB 350, now sitting in the Committee for Natural Resources, would formalize Governor Brown’s goals. “The world is watching California,” Senator De León said.

“I agree all eyes are on California,” said Steve McBee, CEO for NRG Home, adding that political leadership on climate policy must also come from Washington. McBee doesn’t see that happening anytime soon. “Leadership on this issue has to come from leadership in rooms like this,” McBee said.

This sense of urgency for policy action rippled throughout the summit, as panelists called for targets, clear goals, policy frameworks, and signals to guide the energy market. “The only thing standing in the way of rooftop solar just blowing up” is the “lack of policy signal” from state legislatures, McBee said. Stacey Lawson, CEO of YGrene, said that Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) providers have come together as an industry group to make it as easy as possible for governments to adopt PACE-friendly policy, but the sticking point is often “political will.”

In addition to policy tweaks and incentives to level the field for solar and renewable energy financing, work is needed on the macro level to create a framework within which the renewable industry can thrive. Angelina Galiteva, who serves on the California Independent System Operator Board of Governors, said policies establishing a carbon tax, or cap and trade will make renewables by default the lowest cost alternative to fossil fuels. While decarbonizing the transportation sector presents a huge opportunity, Galiteva said, “we need to have a sure and solid and a foreseeable structure in terms of regulation” to guide this transition.

Balancing the warnings and calls to action was California’s signature blend of optimism and faith in innovation. “We don’t shirk from big challenges here in Silicon Valley,” Steyer said, “there’s a great can-do attitude.” “Saving a kilowatt an hour is worth a set market price,” said Daniel Hamilton, Sustainability Program Manager for the City of Oakland. “Who better than Silicon Valley to figure out how to monetize this?”

Surrounded by business men and women representing three trillion dollars, hearing applause at phrases like “can-do economy” and “mecca for clean energy” resounding in Oracle’s beautiful conference room, I sensed an immense potential in that optimism. Prosperity and progressive climate policy can go hand in hand—California’s proving this. Now if we could just spread that energy around to conference rooms across America, and in the halls of Washington….

Perhaps it’s time to take this show on the road, California.