By Ralph Cavanagh, Natural Resources Defense Council
California is busy devising paths to decarbonizing one of the world’s most robust economies, and this week brought an important contribution to the process. To understand the value of Southern California Edison’s (SCE) proposed Clean Power and Electrification Pathway for the entire state, some context is in order.
America’s electric utilities have emerged as essential partners in a clean energy transition that is already well underway across the nation. As federal leadership on clean energy lags, utilities have stepped up in diverse ways, including the Hawaiian Electric Company’s roadmap to achieve 100 percent renewable electricity over the next three decades, Detroit Edison’s plan to reduce its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 the joint proposal by PG&E and others to retire and replace the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant with zero-carbon electricity, and fierce competition by publicly owned utilities serving Los Angeles, Sacramento and Seattle for an edge in energy efficiency progress. Utilities have also helped reduce toxic air pollution and create literally millions of clean energy jobs.
SCE is an electric utility that serves much of southern California’s population, and its contribution this week was an overview of how it and numerous partners could help cut the entire state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, compared with 1990 levels, starting with an action plan covering the first dozen years of the journey. The utility proposed ambitious statewide milestones for 2030, including 80 percent carbon-free electricity, more than 7 million electric vehicles (up from about 300,000 now) on California’s roads, and a shift of millions of space and water heaters to highly efficient electric-powered replacements. This will warm the hearts of those who back ambitious legislation like Senator Kevin De Leon’s SB 100, which anticipates a carbon-free electricity sector before the mid-century mark. And it would cut toxic pollution in disadvantaged communities and add high quality jobs in the process.
Electric generation now accounts for less than one-fifth of California’s climate-warming greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to decades of energy efficiency and renewable energy progress, so SCE focuses also on upgrading what is now non-electric transportation, residential and commercial building equipment (including cars, trucks, furnaces and water heaters), which together account for fully half of total emissions. But the company doesn’t pass the buck; it offers, working with other electricity providers, to mobilize low-carbon transportation and appliance solutions long seen as foreign to utilities’ business model, such as electrifying vehicles of all sizes (requiring over a million away-from-home charging ports by 2030) and modernizing electric distribution grids to “support our customers desire to participate in a clean energy future by making their own energy choices.”
The company’s report also highlights policy reforms that need urgent attention, like updating building energy codes and other energy efficiency standards and integrating a badly fragmented western power grid. The SCE Pathway is “a systematic approach and each measure is integrated with and depends upon the success of the others.”
Is all this at least in part about boosting electricity sales and profits for SCE? Hardly: like California’s other major utilities, SCE’s financial health long ago was fully “decoupled” from its annual electricity sales. If electricity sales prove higher than expected and utility revenues exceed authorized levels, SCE and its California counterparts must return the windfall to their customers.
The Pathway should be welcomed as carefully considered expert advice on the feasibility and cost-effectiveness of ambitious emissions-reduction goals that are shared urgently by most Californians, and by billions of others around the world who yearn for affordable reductions in the dangerous pollution that is fueling climate change.