RENEWABLE ENERGY:

Calif. raises RPS to 33%

California regulators raised the state's renewable portfolio standard to 33 percent by 2020 in a unanimous vote yesterday that extends the mandate to public power and opens the door to more clean power imported from other states.

The California Air Resources Board approved the rule as directed by an executive order that was signed last year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to increase the RPS from a 20 percent requirement that sunsets at the end of this year.

The approach through CARB became necessary, in Schwarzenegger's view, when legislation that would have codified a 33 percent approach fell apart last year. A similar bill failed to win approval this summer in Sacramento.

A key difference is the 33 percent standard will apply to public power entities like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which was not covered by the 20 percent mandate. LADWP is the largest public utility in the United States.

The previous standard came under the jurisdiction of the state's Public Utilities Commission, which only has the reach to regulate the state's three-investor owned utilities. CARB has a broader mandate to regulate greenhouse gas emissions under the state's sweeping climate change law, A.B. 32.

While the 20 percent RPS will not technically be met by the end of the year, the three IOUs -- Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. -- are expected to reach about 18 percent by year's end and 20 percent within the next few years under signed contracts.

Boosting the RPS through a rulemaking rather than by law makes the standard subject to the whim of California's voters as suspension of the climate law, A.B. 32, would mean a corresponding freeze on renewable energy expansion. A measure on the November ballot would halt A.B. 32 until unemployment dips to 5.5 percent for a full year.

The rule could also be challenged under the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause as some have said the state would be regulating out-of-state power. In a press call this week, CARB Chairwoman Mary Nichols said she believes the rule would withstand a legal assault, as regulations start only after the power has officially been delivered into the California system.

"We believe it will pass muster," Nichols said.

The rule's approval comes as renewable energy projects, many of them solar, continue to move forward at an unprecedented rate. A flurry of permits have been issued over the past month, the most recent this week when the California Energy Commission cleared a 392-megawatt plant for construction to be built by Oakland-based BrightSource Energy LLC. (ClimateWire, Sept. 23).

The CEC and the Bureau of Land Management are rushing to approve a handful of projects by the end of the year, when federal stimulus incentives expire.

CARB is nominally in charge of the new RPS, but the agency is working closely with the PUC, the CEC and the state's Independent System Operator on the plan. The rule says the air board will preserve existing authorities of other agencies and the grid operator.

A phased-in approach will be applied to reach the targets, with 20 percent now officially pegged to 2012, 24 percent for 2017, 28 percent for 2019 and 33 percent by 2020. Any electricity provider selling less than 200,000 megawatt-hours per year will only be subject to reporting requirements.

The agency says the rule will reduce GHGs by 12 million to 13 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year in 2020.

Separately yesterday, CARB passed a tough anti-sprawl rule that seeks to trim greenhouse gas emissions throughout the state by setting regional restrictions for transportation and land use. The rule directs the 18 metropolitan agencies in charge of planning in California to work emissions cuts into urban blueprints as required under a law passed by the California Legislature in 2008, S.B. 375 (ClimateWire, Sept. 24).

Sullivan reported from San Francisco.