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Five Questions with California Energy Commission’s Courtney Smith on California, Resiliency, and a Clean Energy Future

Courtney Smith with Ron Pernick's picture

Part of a series of insights from leading smart-grid, clean-energy, and utility experts speaking at gridCONNEXT. Questions asked by Clean Edge managing director, author, and gridCONNEXT co-chair Ron Pernick. 

Ron Pernick: As one of his last acts as California’s Governor, Jerry Brown signed into law SB100 which commits the state to getting 100% of its electricity from carbon-free energy sources (mainly renewables) by 2045. How do you see the California Energy Commission (CEC) supporting this significant transition? 

Courtney Smith: The California Energy Commission plays a critical role in creating a future energy system that is clean, modern, and ensures the world’s fifth largest economy continues thriving. In addition to the 2045 zero carbon goal, SB 100 also requires 60 percent of the state’s electricity to be from renewable sources by 2030. The Energy Commission will continue tracking and verifying renewable energy procurement that meets this requirement. This transition will be significant and require new technological solutions. The Energy Commission directs the state’s largest public interest energy research programs which are critical to developing and bringing to market the cutting-edge technologies needed to modernize our systems. Energy efficiency is also necessary. We set cost-effective appliance and new building energy efficiency standards, which have produced more than $100 billion in utility bill savings for consumers. But moving forward, we are turning our sights on tackling the difficult problem of reducing energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in existing buildings. Finally, the Energy Commission is part of a multi-agency planning effort aimed at figuring out how to decarbonize the grid. 

Pernick: As the fifth largest economy in the world, California plays on outsized role. Can you tell us a bit about what you are doing to act as a counterweight to Trump’s anti-climate action stance? And what role, in particular, does California’s ability to set its own environmental and efficiency standards play on the national stage? 

Smith: I think California is serving as a counterweight to anti-climate efforts by simply leading through action. As I testified before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on its proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan, California reached our 2030 target under the plan in 2014—meaning the most populous state in the union reached compliance more than 15 years early. This is an example of how by taking early action, we can demonstrate that it can be done—and in a way that makes us stronger for it. Many of the efforts we are taking to decarbonize our economy fall within our state authority. For example, we set appliance efficiency standards for those appliances that are not pre-empted by federal rules. And while many of our standards have been adopted by other states, consumers nearly everywhere benefit because manufacturers design to our standards and sell energy efficient products beyond the border of California. In addition to our state authority, California also has unique authority under the Clean Air Act to set vehicle emissions standards that are stricter than federal ones, which are set by the California Air Resources Board.   

Pernick: Resiliency is one of the major drivers for a clean-energy transition (flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, etc.). How do you view resiliency in your work at the CEC, and how do you think it might impact the work of incoming Governor Newsom? 

Smith: I recently visited the town of Paradise, which was destroyed in the wake of the Camp Fire.  While there, a utility employee said something that stuck; he said our electricity system is built for the climate from 50 years ago. This is very true. In California, more than a dozen power plants are located less than 4 feet above high tide, making them highly vulnerable to storm surge and sea level rise. Hotter summer temperatures are increasing air conditioning use, driving up summer peak energy demand and increasing strain on the energy system. Drought and hydrological variability make it difficult to plan for reduced hydroelectricity production. Hydroelectricity is free of GHG emissions. The near-term needs must often be met with natural gas, which increases GHG emissions. Wildfires are threatening electrical infrastructure, and in some cases, are caused by this same infrastructure. In building a clean energy system, we have to make sure it can respond to these impacts and continue to provide residents with reliable, affordable energy. 

Pernick: With all that’s been in the news lately, some may have missed that California became the first state to require (via building codes) that newly built homes come with enough solar modules to offset their electricity use. Can you tell us more about this development and similar actions in terms of energy storage and electric vehicles? 

Smith: The Energy Commission has adopted increasingly progressive energy efficiency standards for new buildings since the 1970s. California law requires that these standards be cost-effective, which means additional costs to the building owner to meet the standards must be offset by energy bill savings. So, the recent requirement for solar photovoltaics to be installed on newly constructed residential single-family buildings, and multifamily buildings up to three stories high starting in 2020, is a natural extension of our efforts. The standard is estimated to add about $8,500 to the cost of a new home but saves the homeowners $17,000 in operational costs over 30 years. And while distributed energy storage systems are not required under the standards, we recognize the benefits to the grid they bring, so the new standards will offer compliance credit for those who pair their system with storage. On the EV infrastructure side, the building code already has mandatory requirements to support the installation of future electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Moving forward, we will continue to explore additional cost-effective measures that can produce more savings.

Pernick: Recent protests over a new fuel tax in France (to help address climate change), points out the importance of designing equitable programs that don’t negatively impact vulnerable communities (elderly, low income, etc.). How do you consider such issues in your role at the CEC?

Smith: California is not going to decarbonize the grid or achieve its ambitious climate goals if parts of the state’s diverse population are left behind. We have made progress in designing programs and policies to better serve low-income and vulnerable populations. Much of the proceeds from the Cap and Trade program are being invested in projects that serve these communities, including low-income home weatherization, higher electric vehicle rebates and charging infrastructure, and renewable energy projects. At the Energy Commission, various funding programs are designed to ensure funds benefit low-income and disadvantaged communities. We led the development of a statewide report that identified barriers to advancing energy efficiency and clean energy among low-income and disadvantaged communities. The report offered recommendations on how to address these barriers—many that we are helping to implement. Lastly, the Energy Commission developed energy equity indicators to track the state’s progress.

Courtney Smith is the chief deputy director of the California Energy Commission. She was a keynote speaker at gridCONNEXT 2018 in Washington, D.C. The conference provides an unprecedented opportunity for utilities, policymakers, regulators, investors, businesses, service providers, end-users, and other stakeholders to explore policies and share best practices on building a modern 21st century grid. For more information, visit