SANTA CLARA, Calif. — If there was one clear message during the 2019 Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) West show in Santa Clara, California, it was how California is leading in energy efficiency and the clean energy economy.

The AEE brought its AEE West Conference & Expo to the Santa Clara Convention Center, June 5-6. The conference offered a technology expo with exhibitors showing off the latest energy technologies as well as two full days of learning sessions tackling everything from renewable solutions to current energy policies and trends. California’s role in the energy arena was discussed in sessions such as “Advances in the California Clean Energy Economy” and “The Evolving Energy Efficient Landscape on the West Coast.”


California’s Energy Story

While the conference’s program proved impactful, it was the keynote speakers who really drove home the importance of California as an energy leader.

Ann McCormick, P.E., grew up in Monroe, Michigan, and distinctly remembers the political activism and protest over the Enrico Furmi nuclear power plant. That slice of history had an impact on her formative years and caused her to question “why we use energy and where it should come from.”

McCormick earned her master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is now senior vice president of Willdan Group Inc. and a commissioner for the city of Alameda, California, where she is president of the public utilities board overseeing Alameda Municipal Power (AMP).

McCormick told the crowd at AEE West that she moved to California to pursue a career in energy engineering because California was on the cutting edge. To highlight California’s role in energy efficiency and conservation, she took attendees through an introduction to “California Energy Policy 101.”

California’s energy history begins in the 1960s as land growth expanded and the state sought out more affordable power. CalEdison implemented the first successful nuclear power plant in California but not without environmental pushback from economists and lawyers.

McCormick said the plant created numerous lawsuits and drove California officials to “consider conservation instead of just building power plants. These challenges changed the course.”

While the current presidential administration has rolled back energy efficiency measures, McCormick pointed out that it was the Republican Party that ushered in some of the biggest conservation efforts. Under the administration of Richard Nixon, the National Parks system was created as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and the first Earth Day celebration was held. Also, in 1974, California Gov. Ronald Regan signed the Warren Alquist Act, which made California the first state to create appliance standards. It also made way for what is now the Title 24 building codes.

McCormick explained that California was the first state to use energy efficiency rules in state buildings.

“At this time, conservation was a patriotic duty,” she said. “It’s not about freezing in the dark but doing more with less.”

In the 1980s, decoupling was introduced and state building codes created more jobs. By the 1990s, California began to see a push toward zero emissions vehicles and demand-response energy. However, one big misstep in the 1990s completely changed California’s energy infrastructure.

In 1996, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed a bill that allowed for utility deregulation. According to McCormick, the move was meant to create competition in the utility industry with the end goal of providing lower utility rates for customers. But, by 2000, it had actually created price fixing and the utility companies lost between $12 billion and $14 billion. In fact, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) had to file bankruptcy. In 2001, California was experiencing rolling blackouts. The outcry was so severe that then Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and taken out of office. While Gov. Gray did not sign the deregulation bill, McCormick said voters believed he was “slow to act.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was next to take office, and the state was ready to put its energy landscape back on track. The groundwork was laid for a more energy-efficient California with the adoption of AB177, which required the state to get 33% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. McCormick said that California has already succeeded, with the state hitting 34% renewable energy in 2018. The bill also directs retail sellers of electricity to adopt a long-term strategy that allows them to procure 51% of electricity from renewable resources by Dec. 31, 2030.

“Part of this rebound was Arnold not wanting to repeat the same mistakes,” said McCormick.

By 2004, California was spending approximately $2 billion on energy efficiency projects. And in 2006, AB32, the Global Warming Act, was adopted. The act aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through cap and trade. In 2017, SB100 was passed, which calls for 100% clean energy by 2045. The energy does not need to be renewable but clean and carbon free.

“This is a great opportunity for energy engineers with the decarbonization of buildings, micro grids, and smart cities,” said McCormick. “We are at a turning point and there are a lot of ways companies can do business.”

She also pointed out that California still has challenges to overcome. The recent northern California wildfires will have had devastating impacts on the energy economy — more specifically causing another PG&E bankruptcy. However, McCormick points out that challenges create new and innovative opportunities.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” she said. “As California goes, so goes the nation,” she added. “What we do next is important.”


Looking to the future

While McCormick shared California’s energy past and its hopes for the future, J. Andrew McAllister explained to attendees how the state plans to achieve its goals.

As commissioner with the California Energy Commission, McAllister said decarbonization is where the state is heading. The state is eager to implement more low-carbon heating systems and invest in zero carbon buildings.

So far, California is doing well with this initiative. For example, Los Angeles plans to stop using gas plants over the next decade. Also, California passed SB700, known as the Million Solar Roofs of Energy Storage Bill. The bill will aim to provide nearly 3,000 megawatts of behind-the-meter energy storage systems for schools, farms, homes, nonprofits, and businesses by 2026.

However, McCallister said California needs to make its decarbonization and energy efficiency goals accessible to everyone.

“Water and power are basic needs,” he said. “It’s a question of humanity and fundamental equity.”

McCallister explained that an energy efficiency project in one part of the state may not work or be viable for another part of the state. With this in mind, McCallister said that the Energy Commission needs more data that will provide information on the best ways to serve every community. This information includes consumer data from the utilities, data on energy impacts and trends, and the impacts location has on energy projects. All of this information can then be used to update the California energy codes and provide consumers with better access to cleaner energy.

Not only will these efforts help the state achieve its decarbonization goals, they will also help put California residents to work.

“We are going to reach half a million clean energy jobs,” McCallister said.

He pointed out that this trend is spreading across the country. More and more states, no matter whether they identify politically as “red or blue,” are realizing the impact the clean energy sector has on creating new jobs and putting people to work.