California State Capitol

California’s Senate has just passed some important new renewable energy legislation that will, if approved in the Assembly and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown, require utilities operating in the state to obtain one third of their electricity from renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar or geothermal. This is a big increase from the current 20% targets set by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a 2009 executive order.

Bucking the national trends, California’s Senate has just approved a landmark renewable energy bill requiring utilities in the state to source one third of the electric energy they sell and distribute from renewable energy sources by 2020. This is a 50% increase from the current 2020 target level of 20%. The bill, which is also expected to pass the state Assembly and to be signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown will propel the state back into a position of global leadership in wind, solar and geothermal electricity; a position that it once held under the same Governor it what seems like a different era now. California law already requires utilities to get a fifth of their power from renewable energy and California cleantech companies (and high-tech crossover companies as well) are some of the leaders in these sectors; the new legislation builds on this existing momentum and raises the bar further. Supporters of the measure say that the bill will both help grow California’s vibrant green economy and help to improve air quality in the state. Opponents instead claim it will raise the cost for electricity in the state and chase business away. As one might imagine the vote was, with a few exceptions along party lines with Democrats generally in favor and Republicans largely opposed to its passage; the measure passed 26 to 11.

The mostly Republican opponents of the bill claim that businesses will be driven out of the state because of increased energy costs. In the words of State Senator Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar), “This is yet another nail in the coffin for our manufacturing sector in California”.

While, largely Democratic supporters will naturally focus instead on the many benefits they expect to see from this measure’s passage for the states ailing economy. Their message will try to stay on the subject of green jobs and growing California’s green economy/cleantech sector. State Senator Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), the bill’s author, commenting on its passage had this to say, “Right now we can begin to create the jobs that this state so desperately needs.”

What Will it Really Cost? There is no clear consensus on the actual true cost to consumers and businesses that will result from passage of this measure and the figures quoted vary widely depending on the political views of the person who is speaking. While opponents say it will increase electricity costs by 15% to 20% this is contested by supporters who say the actual cost will be much lower. This later view is supported by a two year old California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) study, which stated that overall electric energy costs would probably go up around 7% if a third of California’s electricity were to come from renewable sources. Since the studies publish date the costs for renewable energy has come down so that 7% figure may even be too high; this according ot a spokesperson for the Agency.

How Many Green Jobs? Building the facilities needed to generate and transmit solar, wind and geothermal energy could require an investment of $115 billion, the PUC has estimated, creating 100,000 to 200,000 new jobs. The prospect of new green jobs — in their districs — actually swayed a few Republican Senators to crossover and vote for its passage, with both Tony Strickland of Moorpark and Sharon Runner of Lancaster crossing party lines to support it. Runner, who represents a district with large swaths of high desert predicted that many of the new solar and wind-power jobs will probably be created in her district, where unemployment is high.

However one may feel about renewable energy this bill certainly moves the ball forward (or downward from opponent’s perspective). It is going to be a force shifting the energy economy of one of the world’s largest economies away from dependence on foreign (and out of state) fossil energy suppliers to an energy economy based on high technology and cleantech that harvest solar and wind energy and creates many tens of thousands of new green collar jobs.

If California does manage to get one third of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 as provisioned by this measure it will have one of the greenest energy economies on the planet. And while opponents have seized upon the cost argument, citing figures that are far higher than those of the PUC study; in the longer term, as unit costs for fossil energy sources begin to rise the people of the state may in fact be better insulated from the rising prices and volatility that will be instead looming for all fossil energy sources including coal.

Opinions on matters like these can quickly become quite heated and sink to the level of partisan sniping, which is too bad I think. As someone who often writes about green economy subjects it is probably pretty easy to guess that I am a supporter of the measure and my general support for renewable energy probably influenced my opinion on this. I am interested in other opinions — for or against. Having the conversation — even when it is a disagreement — is important for everyone; regardless of their own beliefs and views.

Follow Chris on Twitter @greeneconpost