Economic Policy Challenges Facing California's Next Governor: Electricity Policy Reform

Californians like to think of themselves as environmentally conscious and forward-thinking. The state’s energy and environmental policies reflect these sentiments. With the passage of SB 100, California has one of the nation’s most ambitious renewable energy goals for its electricity supply industry. The California Solar Initiative rebate program has led to more rooftop solar capacity in the state than the total rooftop solar capacity installed in the next eight highest-capacity states. AB32 established California as the only state with its own cap-and-trade market for greenhouse gas emissions. This market currently sets the nation’s highest price for a ton of greenhouse gas emissions. California recently set a goal of five million electric vehicles in the state by 2030. Under AB 2514, California’s three investor-owned utilities are required to purchase 1,325 megawatts of grid-scale storage capacity and AB 2868 requires them to purchase 500 megawatts of behind-the-meter storage capacity. All of these policies have made California a global leader in the transition to a less carbon-intensive energy sector.

There is one major downside to California’s energy and environmental policies: they are extremely expensive for California consumers. Average residential electricity prices in California are among the highest in the nation—not because it is so expensive to produce electricity in the state, but because the costs of these policies are recovered from retail electricity prices. A comparison to Texas, another large state that also uses natural gas to power most of its electricity generation fleet, illustrates this point. According to the US Energy Information Administration (US-EIA), average residential electricity prices in California are currently about 20 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh) versus 10 cents per kWh in Texas. However, average wholesale electricity prices in the two states are roughly equal.

This difference in retail prices is primarily due to different policy responses in the two states to the shale gas boom that started in the mid-2000s and ultimately led to a roughly 66 percent decline in the wholesale price of natural gas. California responded to these low natural gas prices with spending on the policies described above and no reductions in retail electricity prices, despite average wholesale electricity prices in California falling by one-half to two-thirds relative to their pre-shale gas boom levels. Texas responded to this decline in natural gas prices by implementing vigorous retail competition for all classes of customers, which passed on the resulting lower wholesale electricity prices into lower retail electricity prices.

What is more surprising about the Texas-versus-California comparison is that over this same time period Texas managed to build more zero-carbon wind and solar generation capacity than California. Texas currently has more than 22,000 megawatts (MWs) of grid-scale wind and solar capacity versus about 17,000 MWs in California. Different from California, Texas has accomplished this massive renewable generation buildout which also produces more renewable energy on an annual basis than California with no state-mandated financial support mechanisms beyond its competitive renewable energy zone (CREZ) policy that proactively expanded the state’s transmission network to regions with significant renewable resources. Texas’s market-based approach to fostering renewable generation entry has led to more capacity at significantly lower cost relative to California’s legislatively mandated and consumer-financed approach.

Because Californians are likely to want to continue to lead the energy transition, the relevant policy design question is: How can the state achieve these low-carbon energy goals in a more cost- effective manner?