California’s Publicly Owned Utilities Have Plenty of Work to Do on Renewables

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Pine Tree Wind Farm supplies power for LADWP

How are California’s utilities performing on the clean energy front? It is easy to kick California while it is down, but the Golden State still holds its own when it comes to how the state is powered. For thirty years the state’s consumption of water and of course, energy, has relatively flatlined. Despite the state’s continued growth, California is still among the more energy efficient states, partly because of its commitment to the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) that launched 10 years ago.

So how have California’s publicly owned utilities (POUs) been contributing to the state’s clean energy portfolio? The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) recently released a report that examined the state’s 10 largest POUs between 2003 and 2010. At a higher level, the state has made huge progress on what UCS calls “RPS renewables,” which are primarily in solar and wind power. Overall, RPS renewables have surged from 4.1 percent to 18.8 percent of these POUs between 2003 and 2010.

Among these large POUs, Silicon Valley Power, Turlock Irrigation District and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District were ahead of the pack with over 20 percent of its energy coming from solar and wind power. The state’s largest POU, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), headed the middle rankings, with Burbank Water and Power having the least success with only seven percent of its energy mix coming from RPS renewables. According to UCS, the reasons these POUs have a lesser percentage of energy derived from solar and wind is because of a lack of aggressive investment – or relying on short term contracts which expand a utility’s RPS portfolio only briefly.

The results should not be surprising to clean energy advocates. While these POUs are not beholden to shareholders, as is the case with such publicly traded utilities as PG&E and Edison, they do have to answer to customers – and cowered politicians who would rather not have their offices deluged with angry phone calls and emails over rising energy bills. Overall the results are encouraging, but they are just not occurring quickly enough for those who have their eyes on the calendar. After all, the state’s RPS portfolio is supposed to increase to 33 percent by 2020. And while these utilities’ reliance on coal has fallen to less than a ratio of one-third as of 2010, there is plenty of room for improvement.

If the bean counters include nuclear, these POUs’ total consumption of non-fossil fuels stands at 35 percent. The upshot is that all utilities have got to make a move on diversifying their energy portfolios, despite all the the recent jitters over some solar energy companies’ performance, or technically, non-performance. The cost of fossil fuels will continue to be volatile, and a long term vision can help hedge utilities, and even more importantly, businesses, against those devastating price shocks.

Leon Kaye, based in California, is a sustainability consultant and the editor of He also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business and covers sustainable architecture and design for Inhabitat. You can follow him on Twitter.

Photo of the LADWP’s Pine Tree Wind Farm in Kern County courtesy LADWP and PublicPower.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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