What if we could generate clean energy just by walking? That is one of the great dreams in California, the world’s sixth richest “nation” and, more significantly, the USA’s most eco-friendly State. In just two years’ time, in fact, over half of the energy used there will come from renewable sources. That target will be reached a decade ahead of the date set by the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), the ambitious programme the State is using to manage its “go green” ambitions. The latest report on implementing the RPS, which was compiled by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), a government agency that regulates the activities of the major electric and gas utilities, has found that the State is well ahead of schedule. This is thanks in part to the many experimental projects it has already either launched or has planned. For example, the California Energy Commission is pouring two million dollars into financing an applicability study for a new type of technology known as piezoelectric energy: special panels installed in roads and sidewalks to capture kinetic energy created by traffic and which in turn produce clean electricity. The experiments have been entrusted to the University of California, Merced and Pyro-E (a spin-off from the University of California, Berkeley) but the system has already been used in Tokyo where all the monitors at an East Japan Railway Company station are powered by commuters walking over piezoelectric floors. Furthermore, California is the first State in the USA to have made solar panels compulsory in new homes. The decision, which will come into effect in 2020, was taken after a unanimous vote in December.
Solar and wind energy to improve technological innovation
Under the RPS, renewable sources should be supplying 50% of the energy consumed in California by 2030. This would create savings of 51 billion dollars annually for residents (according to data provided by Strategen Consulting). The nation’s electric utilities are, however, making such rapid progress that they have outstripped the renewables quota set for 2016 (25%) and in some cases have already exceeded the 30% or even 40% mark. If that pace continues, the State may be getting 50% of its power sustainability by 2020, thereby surpassing the scheduled 33% target. It may even hit the 100% renewables mark well before 2045, the symbolic “mission accomplished” year.
This is a surprising leap forward, particularly considering that, in 2010, renewables accounted for a mere 15% of the total but now represent 29% of the electricity mix driven mostly by solar (52%) and wind (29%), as CAISO (the California Independent System Operator) points out. This development has been flanked by a steady reduction in emissions, a goal that has been pursued since 2008, and significant technological innovation. The RPS report actually highlights how the average gross purchase price from solar energy stations has gone from 135.90 dollars per megawatt-hour in 2008 to just 29 dollars in 2016, a drop of 77%. The same thing has happened in wind power where the price has fallen from around 97 dollars to under 51 dollars, a tumble of 47%.
Cleantech in the future of the companies
California is also recognised as the world leader in cleantech with companies which are quite literally revolutionising how energy is generated, distributed and stored. Facebook, Google and Yahoo!, all of which are California-based, are kick-starting a whole new era in electric and electronic engineering. One project already up and running is Cleantech Open which since 2005 has supported at least a thousand new companies involved in providing sustainable solutions in the energy, environmental and economic sectors, by raising over a billion dollars in financing from outside investors.
But California’s green heart beats throughout the State. You only need to walk around the California Academy of Science, a research institute and natural history museum designed by Renzo Piano in the Golden Gate Bridge district of San Francisco, and you will find yourself in the world’s most sustainable museum. It features 55,000 multi-crystalline photovoltaic cells, 50,000 square metres of green roofing covered with 1.7 million native plants and water from the Ocean used in its aquariums. And, not far from San Francisco, what about Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara? The home of the San Francisco 49ers has not one but two LEED certifications, thousands of solar panels and uses 90% sustainable and zero-kilometre products. It is no coincidence that the 49ers have been recognised by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) for their commitment to the fight against climate change. Apple, of course, also deserves a very special mention: the Cupertino-based colossus has announced that all its facilities worldwide are now being 100% powered by clean energy and that 23 of its suppliers are also completely green.
Last but by no means least is Barbie. Yes, the world’s most famous doll has laid the foundations for her Dream House in Malibu which will cost around 3.5 million dollars to complete. Solar panels on the roof, a low-impact plant irrigation system, bamboo flooring, eco bathroom drainage system, zero-kilometre materials and Class A-rated household appliances will make it entirely sustainable.
Environmental protection: California dictates law independently
The Golden State aims to be in the front line of the green revolution and has no qualms about circumventing President Trump’s energy vision. In May, the State of California filed a lawsuit against the federal government to reiterate its right to independently formulate its own environmental protection laws. Nor is this the first time it has done so. In the case of the automotive sector, for example, the fuel efficiency of cars was boosted from 5 km per litre in 1975 to the current level of 16 km, while the target for 2030 is 25 km/litre. Added to this are other measures such as tight restrictions on non-zero-emissions vehicles with incentives to encourage the use of e-vehicles and Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment, the opening of the afore-mentioned CAISO and the distributed energy markets.
The Green Building Standards Code by the California Energy Commission will involve, aside from the installation of solar panels, new thermal insulation standards for homes, the legal obligation to use low-consumption light sources in all non-residential buildings, the introduction of heat pump cooling systems and the use of batteries capable of storing excess electric energy generated during the day. And EGP has signed an agreement in California to supply three lithium-ion batteries to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for a total capacity of 85 MW. The three batteries will accumulate and store energy at times of greater availability, and then feed it into the grid when there is peak demand, thereby helping to make the system more stable.
Added to this is the “America’s Pledge on climate change,” headed by California governor Jerry Brown and former Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. It is supported by more than 2,700 leaders in the USA. They represent 159 million people and an estimated 6.2 trillion dollars in GPD. This is a growing team that is increasingly committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Even a glance at the State accounts reveals that focusing on renewables does not seem to be weakening the economy. Quite the contrary, in fact. Between 2000 and 2014, California cut noxious emissions by 6.3%, but its economy grew by 28.2%. This is no mean feat for a State which faced bankruptcy less than 10 years ago.