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California's sustainable future begins with renewable energy

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Giant wind turbines are powered by strong winds in front of solar panels on March 27, 2013 in Palm Springs, California. According to reports, California continues to lead the nation in green technology and has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita, even with a growing economy and population.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Giant wind turbines are powered by strong winds in front of solar panels on March 27, 2013 in Palm Springs, California. According to reports, California continues to lead the nation in green technology and has the lowest greenhouse gas emissions per capita, even with a growing economy and population.

Jerry Brown signed two climate change bills into law, formally committing the state to cut emissions by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

Governor Jerry Brown was in Los Angeles on Thursday, signing two climate change bills into law. California now has the most aggressive target for climate reduction in the United States.

Deepa Fernandes spoke to Mark Gold, UCLA associate vice chancellor for Environment and Sustainability. Gold has overseen a project called Grand Challenge: Sustainable LA, which brought researchers from several fields together to study how LA County could become sustainable by 2050. A Martinez also spoke to Richard Wirz, who studies wind power at UCLA and was also part of the project. Wirz talked about how shifting to renewable energy is a critical part of meeting the new greenhouse gas emissions criteria that became law yesterday.

Interview highlights

What is the Grand Challenge: Sustainable LA?

Mark Gold: "...We have a really large group of academics working on environment and sustainability, and we came up with this idea of let's use the university to work with the local community and state to try to make LA truly sustainable by 2050 with these audacious goals of 100 percent renewable energy, 100 percent local water, and enhanced ecosystem health, and human health and well-being. We put together a research plan that came out the beginning of this year on the information we need to... put this road map together and how do we get to sustainability. We'll finish this roadmap by 2020, and the good news is, we're really seeing local gov and the state of CA moving in this direction already, which is really wonderful to see."

What does 100 percent sustainable actually mean?

Mark Gold: "100 percent renewable energy would mean that all of our energy is coming from renewable sources, so it's solar, it's wind, it can also be new bio gas, like landfill gas, so it's getting our energy from nonpolluting resources, which would be a big change. Imagine LA, where we've had some of the worst smog in the country, if not the world, over the last four or five decades, even with the improvements we've had, where all transportation would be electrified and running on renewable rather than running on petroleum."

What can California do to move the needle the most toward sustainability?

Mark Gold: "...Renewable energy is going to make the big difference. As an example—people don't even know this—the largest solar facility in the world just opened not too long ago in our Antelope Valley. Not too far from where we all live. This facility is over 600 megawatts of solar and it was built in a few short years and has really been providing energy for Southern California Edison. This has happened quickly. Between now and 2030, we have time to get to 50% renewable energy, which was a requirement from last year's law, SB 350...and so really that move to renewable is going to make a big difference. ...We're going to need to transform how we deal with transportation. Those are the big, big changes that aren't really going to have a huge impact on us on our day-to-day lives [but] it's getting to 100 percent that's going to be a lot more challenging and difficult.

Who bears the burden of this? Individuals? Government? Industry?

Mark Gold: This transformation from a petroleum-based economy isn't going to occur overnight and it isn't going to be free, but as we've already seen in the state of California in comparison with other has not hurt our economy. In fact, it has created brand new industries for us to excel at. There was no Tesla ten years ago, and now we're one of the leaders in electric cars. What this transformation has done is create a new green economy for California that, frankly, is leading the entire country and I think is only going to continue to make California thrive.

What role could wind energy play in California's energy future?

Richard Wirz: "Wind is a part of it and actually, we have a lot of wind energy resources on land and those are the easier resources to get to because we can easily build wind turbines on land and it turns out that modern wind turbines provide some of the lowest cost energy available, sometimes even lower than the cost of coal, which is our lowest-cost energy, without the deficit of dealing with the pollution. The problem is that we need more of it and we have the prospect of building off-shore wind turbines, which provide us with a lot more predictable and consistent wind energy. ...The wind is not always blowing when you need the energy. We could do considerably more energy from off-shore [wind farms]. ...The challenge with California, unfortunately the ocean is deeper and where we would try to get those wind resources, it's going to be quite a bit more, so we would have to commit to building giant oil rig-like platforms where we would put wind turbines on those platforms." 

What obstacles are in the way of California shifting to more renewable energy?

Richard Wirz: "We need to store that energy, because unlike a fossil fuel facility where we actually can change the output based on the needs of the consumers, we don't have that luxury with that wind or with the sun. Wind has that inherent challenge of variability, that's why we need to work on storage technologies. That kind of transitions us to how do we get to the levels of penetration of renewable energy that Governor Brown wants to see, and the way to do that is we need to look at wind and solar [because] it's actually more predictable—we pretty much can tell you when the sun is going to shine... The bill doesn't get bigger because we actually have copious solar resources here in California and those are very cost-effective. We really just need to implement these's not so much we need to develop new technologies.

Click the blue audio player to hear the full interview.

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