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Electrify everything? With this grid?

Updated: May 19

It seems there are two overlapping energy policy worlds in California: the world of decarbonization and the world of resilience. On the decarbonization front, the state of California has made serious progress in the last decade. But the last few fire seasons have shown us that the road to a climate-resilient grid is a bumpy one. As California grapples with the fiscal and political consequences of the PSPS (Public Safety Power Shutoff) era, I can’t help but wonder if concerns about reliable electric power will slow down the electrification push. In other words, how much will climate adaptation hinder climate mitigation?

In the last few years, a loose climate action playbook has solidified for California: Continue to decarbonize the grid while focusing on transportation and building electrification. Although building electrification has been called for by climate advocates for a long time, the state become more serious recently. In August 2019, the CPUC voted to open a $1B pool of energy efficiency funds to electrification programs, not just efficiency measures. Meanwhile, progressive local jurisdictions are taking another step towards building decarbonization. Some, like Berkeley, are requiring that all new developments be all-electric. Others, like Davis, are simply heavily incentivizing electric construction. It seems clear that weaning ourselves off residential natural gas is the right thing to do for the climate, given the speed of decarbonization we need.

Yet succeeding will be neither easy nor cheap. Michael Colvin of the Environmental Defense Fund made this clear during his recent seminar at UC Davis, Decarbonizing California’s Buildings: Planning for the Stranded “Gassets.” Mr. Colvin argued convincingly that while there are ways the state can be strategic about electrification (eg. targeting areas with older gas infrastructure first, where the pipeline cost is already paid off), transitioning away from gas early will take money and willpower. The most appealing option from a climate hawk’s perspective, state-backed asset securitization, would require all taxpayers to bear the burden of the transition. The only problem? It’s far from clear that the politics are close to where they need to be for this kind of legislative bond to pass.

Throughout Mr. Colvin’s presentation (article version here), I couldn’t help but think about the unprecedented electricity shutoffs happening in PG&E territory this month. The entire lynchpin of serious decarbonization plan is a reliable, resilient electric grid. Will we stumble in our electrification push, given that the electricity system is not as reliable as it once was? Will consumers and homeowners be more hesitant to ditch gas? Already there is evidence that those with vested interest in gas are taking advantage of the moment. As Sammy Roth has reported in the LA times, SoCalGas is engaged in a massive campaign to maintain its business model. When asked about the PSPS events, Roth reported that a spokesperson for SoCalGas said that the state needs “more than an oversimplified, one-size-fits-all approach to energy use in buildings that balances our climate goals with the diverse needs of California’s 40 million residents.”

Perhaps there are other climate concerns coming out of the PSPS as well. GOP lawmakers in the state are calling for the repeal of SB 100 in order to afford grid hardening without burdening ratepayers. To me, this is just the first wave of what will become one of the defining fights over the next few decades: How can we prioritize climate mitigation when we have limited resources, and climate resilience is more critical to the local population in the short term? This is one of the great challenges of our time—a challenge that could have been avoided if mitigation efforts had begun in earnest in the 80s or 90s. But here we are—stuck having to do both mitigation and adaptation simultaneously.

And both is indeed what we must do. In the case of electrification, I think the case remains as strong as ever. We need to build a more decentralized, resilient electric grid no matter what. So although the next few years might be full of seasonal blackouts, the system will improve. Not to mention, many natural gas furnaces and tankless gas water heaters don’t work without electricity to begin with. The future of natural gas infrastructure is not at all clear, and the pipeline system has serious resiliency and safety concerns of its own.

But at a more fundamental level, we simply can’t overthink things. Slowing down decarbonization because of climate impacts is counterproductive on its face—it will only make adaptation even more costly in the long term. Additionally, when climate impacts start hitting affluent places like California, we must realize that what is happening to places with less durable infrastructure is far, far worse. We have a moral obligation to rapidly decarbonize.

Fighting climate change while experiencing its impacts is hard, and it is enormously expensive. But what other choice do we have?

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