Gov. Gavin Newsom is fast-tracking new legislation to expand the state’s authority to buy more clean energy and keep the lights on. But some renewable energy advocates worry the Central Valley is getting left behind once again.

In the last week of session, the Legislature is rapidly advancing a complex measure that would allow the state to invest in pricey offshore wind energy projects in place of utilities, with the hope of bringing long-term grid reliability to California.

Newsom’s deal with lawmakers would also benefit new geothermal plants in the Imperial Valley and a hydropower project in San Diego County. Left out of the agreement was hydrogen generated by dairy methane, larger dams with more energy storage potential and biomass facilities that produce electricity from burning agricultural waste and forest debris. Lawmakers also worry the deal focuses too narrowly on job growth for one coastal industry.

At the center of the energy issue is the Department of Water Resources, an agency established to manage the State Water Project that took over as California’s energy procurement body in the wake of a crippling energy crisis at the turn of the century. DWR grabbed headlines last month for a controversial decision to extend the life of three natural gas power plants in Southern California to shore up the grid, provoking criticism about advancing the state’s clean energy goals.

Newsom’s Assembly Bill 1373 would expand DWR’s authority to build a more robust “insurance fund” and avoid the risk of rolling blackouts that threatened California during a September heat wave last year. It would allow DWR to sign on to long-term procurement contracts through 2035.

“We’ve set some of the most ambitious clean energy goals in the nation to break the vicious cycle of climate change-caused energy emergencies — we need every tool at our disposal to achieve them,” Newsom said in a statement announcing the deal with lawmakers.

Democratic leaders in both houses are backing the bill. Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas explained that the “complex legislation includes careful checks and balances and required months of work.”

Senate Republicans, however, attempted to block the measure from advancing last Friday, arguing the short timeline was not enough to review the full 29 pages of the 11th-hour proposal.

Anna Caballero at A-P West SummitSen. Anna Caballero, D-MercedModerates are skeptical over the process and the proposal.

“It is not technology neutral,” Sen. Anna Caballero of Merced said during a recent hearing on AB 1373 in the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee. “It leaves out a lot.”

The selective focus on geothermal and offshore wind to bolster California’s renewable energy portfolio rankled Caballero. In 2019 she unsuccessfully fought to incorporate hydroelectric dams in the portfolio, reasoning they are carbon neutral and the districts housing those dams are forced to purchase out-of-state solar power to comply with the state’s clean energy requirements.

AB 1373 encourages hydropower through a technology known as pumped storage, which acts as a giant battery. When water is plentiful, it pumps water from a lower retention lake into the upper reservoir to run again through the turbines as needed. In capping power generation at 500 megawatts, however, the bill benefits an urban coastal district hoping to advance a specific project on the books, the San Vicente Reservoir. Lake Oroville, for example, has 800 MW generation capacity.

The controversial proposal for Sites Reservoir, meanwhile, had initially incorporated a plan for pumped storage but later dropped it to trim costs, though the project would still produce hydropower.

Caballero’s district routinely grapples with some of the state’s hottest temperatures as well as its greatest challenges with grid reliability.

“My fear is when we hit a crunch,” she said. “Where we don't have reliable energy, that's where the electricity gets turned off — because of the overuse of electrical resources, because of air conditioners.”

She also criticized the proposal for not bringing to the Central Valley more high-road jobs, which provide oil and agriculture workers with more career opportunities under the state’s clean energy transition. She pointed to biomass energy production and referred to the excessive amount of agricultural waste available now that the Air Resources Board has banned open burning. The waste — along with methane emissions captured through anaerobic digesters at dairies and landfills — can also be converted into hydrogen fuel to power trucks, buses and boats. She also pushed for scaling up carbon capture and underground storage, which has the potential to slash emissions from oil production in the valley and improve local air quality.

Caballero’s comments followed concerns expressed by the Bioenergy Association of California — backed by the Agricultural Energy Consumers Association — that AB 1373 could set a precedent for taking resources like bioenergy and hydrogen off the table.

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, a co-author on AB 1373, responded that there was no consensus in the Legislature to establish a centralized procurement process for biomass, and said those same policy differences have led the state to fall short on carbon capture and other technologies. AB 1373 specifically rules out the use of combustion fuels to generate electricity, though it makes an exception for combustion from geothermal.

But Garcia stressed that the agreement had to be “extremely narrow” to pass and that it does not preclude utilities from procuring biomass energy.

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“What you're saying is S.O.L.,” replied Caballero. “The workers in the interior part of the state are just not going to have the opportunity to be able to participate in being lifted up because we're going to put all our eggs in one basket.”

She called it exclusionary to just go for the policies that more progressive lawmakers would back.

“We've got all this agricultural waste — we've got dead trees that have burned up — and we need to take them down and we need to get rid of them,” she said. “I have people who tell me they want good jobs. I’m going to have to tell them to go to the coast. That's where we're going to create all these jobs.”

Sen. Susan Eggman of Stockton, a former Agriculture chair and more progressive lawmaker, was also skeptical about leaving biomass out of the procurement process and hoped to see future policies better address the issue. The Senate Appropriations Committee, however, recently stalled a bill that would have tasked the California Energy Commission with examining ways to scale up forest biomass procurement for energy production.

Republican Sen. Kelly Seyarto of Riverside County, on the other hand, raised red flags over the state acting as a buffer for “really, really expensive” renewable technologies like offshore wind and geothermal energy.

“There's a cost to this,” said Seyarto. “And at the end of the day, ratepayers are going to be absorbing it one way or the other.”

GOP Sen. Brian Dahle of Lassen County explained that central procurement means every ratepayer in California will pay for unproven technologies through higher rates.

Others raised skepticism over increasing DWR’s authority while limiting its procurement options.

“I've seen this movie before and it didn't end well,” said Committee Chair Steven Bradford of Gardena, who worked at a utility during the 2001 energy crisis and who was also disappointed to see biomass and methane digesters excluded. “We have spent the last 25 years … picking winners and losers.”

Bradford added that the state is “more concerned about a diverse portfolio versus a diverse workforce,” arguing that socially disadvantaged communities have been used as poster children for the clean energy push without the green jobs ever materializing.

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