Two new climate change studies

New reports find challenges to meeting targets in state’s new global warming law

Don’t get distracted by Solyndra. A new study commissioned by SunRun, a San Francisco-based solar company, blames local government red tape for hampering progress of residential and commercial solar installations.

Don’t get distracted by Solyndra. A new study commissioned by SunRun, a San Francisco-based solar company, blames local government red tape for hampering progress of residential and commercial solar installations.

It’s finally happening. Starting next year, California law will require mandatory caps on certain sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Officials hope the new measures will result in higher usage of renewable energy and significantly lower emissions by 2020, as required by the state’s landmark 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act—also known as Assembly Bill 32.

Two studies released this summer are raising concern about how to best achieve those goals. Both raise questions about whether government agencies are doing enough to develop sources of renewable power, which must supply 33 percent of the state’s power in just nine years.

In “Potential impacts on hydrology and hydropower production under climate warming of the Sierra Nevada,” UC Davis professor Dr. Joshua Viers and others argue that climate change could drastically reduce hydroelectric output from Northern California dams by 2050 unless officials develop contingency plans. Hydropower is a form of renewable energy that currently makes roughly 20 percent of the state’s power supply.

Yet the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency charged with licensing many hydroelectric dams in the state, has refused to consider climate change when issuing licenses to new and existing facilities. According to Viers, who also serves as Associate Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis, the impact of that decision could dramatically affect how cities and local communities receive hydropower.

“Once we decide on how a particular hydropower project is going to be operated, for all intents and purposes, that’s locked in for 30-50 years,” said Viers.

If average temperatures in California rise just two degrees Celsius by 2050, rainfall and snowmelt levels could become more unpredictable according to some climate change projections. As a result, hydropower output could plunge by 25 to 35 percent during the summer when energy demand often peaks. Viers argues that FERC’s decision means dam operators may lack a uniform response to changing conditions.

If that happens, another source of renewable energy such as solar power might need to pick up the slack. But some analysts don’t think the solar industry is growing rapidly enough in California to support that kind of future demand.

The other study released in July— “Economic Fiscal Impact Analysis of Residential Permitting Reform”—blames local government red tape for hampering progress. Commissioned by SunRun, a San Francisco-based solar company, the study argues that cutting fees and streamlining the permit process could increase residential and commercial solar installations by 13 percent in the near future.

Ethan Sprague, director of government affairs for SunRun, said he’s hoping Gov. Jerry Brown and other state officials can rally local governments to use electronic permitting systems that would lower fees and create a more uniform process.

“I think the governor has the personality to make that pitch,” said Sprague.

Sprague also hopes the state’s Integrated Energy Policy Report, due out by year’s end from the California Energy Commission, will also recommend ways for local governments to resolve the permitting issue.

But Robert Weisenmiller, chairman of the reporting commission, believes that even if the IEPR concurs with SunRun’s study, it’ll still be up to city and county governments to take the initiative. “We can identify the issues, but we need to work with the local governments to come up with the appropriate solutions as opposed to just the energy commission saying, ‘go do it now,’” said Weisenmiller.

At least in Sacramento, city planners have already responded to SunRun’s study. Solar permit fees will soon drop from an average of $720 to $280 and Sacramento officials plan other reforms, said Tom Pace, the city’s principal planner.

That’s a step in the right direction according to Stanley Young, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, which is the agency tasked with implementing A.B. 32.

“We have to find this balance between (letting) the process exist and making it move as quickly as we can.”