Despite Pandemic, Blackouts, and Wildfires, California Legislature Comes Through with Wins for Electric Transportation and Energy Efficient Schools

Posted by Emilie Olson on Sep 15, 2020 1:33:34 PM

CA leg bear EV-730

In the early morning hours of September 1, California policymakers frantically concluded a legislative session much in keeping with the disquieting, disorienting mood of 2020 and all its unforeseen complications. California continues to grapple with colliding crises – an enduring pandemic, economic recession, and a catastrophic wildfire season. But at least there’s now a stack of bills on the Governor’s desk, including two that would support and indeed accelerate California’s nation-leading push toward electric transportation – and which were AEE’s top priorities for this session.

This year’s legislative session began unlike any other, with the pandemic taking hold and immediately cutting down the number of legislative working days. In March, the escalation of COVID cases and subsequent executive orders prompted a significant rewrite of the legislative agenda and proposed budget. Following an extended Spring Recess and up-ended expectations from January, policy pushes with a big price tag or indeed anything outside the scope of immediate public health and economic relief needs were automatically sidelined. But as the legislature came back into session in August for a final month of work, lawmakers were able to pass some critical legislation.  

Notably, a couple of AEE priority bills made it to the Governor’s desk. One is Assembly Bill 841, authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting. The measure would speed EV infrastructure projects statewide and jumpstart energy efficiency retrofits at schools in the most vulnerable and disadvantaged communities. 

The transportation component of the bill would streamline regulatory review of utility transportation electrification infrastructure programs and speed up approval of pending utility program applications by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). AEE strongly supported the push to accelerate charging infrastructure build out to support California’s ambitious goals for zero-emission vehicles, but had concerns about certain workforce training requirements in the bill, which had heavy backing from organized labor. 

The bill initially contained labor standards for all publicly funded EV infrastructure programs approved by the California Energy Commission (CEC), California Public Utilities Commission, and the California Air Resources Board. Specifically, AEE had concerns around Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program (EVITP) certification requirements which, as originally written, did not address accessibility or industry participation in curriculum review. AEE worked with the author’s office, sponsors, and other key stakeholders to resolve those concerns through amendments to expand the availability of training opportunities statewide and provide opportunity for industry to provide input into EVITP curriculum updates in the future. After the author amended the bill, AEE moved to formally support the bill and worked to secure passage in the final days of session. 

AB 841 also tasks the California Energy Commission with implementing a program to invest in much needed energy efficiency projects at schools statewide. This includes retrofitting HVAC and ventilation systems. The program comes at a time when investment is needed to address public health concerns, especially as schools get ready to open for students in the wake of the pandemic. It also serves as a stimulus to local communities, providing much-needed jobs for workers and investment in advanced energy and transport projects. The bill ultimately passed the Senate on a bipartisan 25-10 vote, followed by a strong 46-1 vote in the Assembly. The bill is awaiting action at the Governor’s desk and AEE is urging the Governor to sign this important measure.

Senate Bill 115, another top priority for AEE, also secured passage in the Legislature in the final hours of session. A budget trailer bill amended in the final days of session, SB 115 cemented $51 million in funding for electric vehicle infrastructure through the California Electric Vehicle Incentive Program (CALeVIP). AEE actively supported this action as part of our budget advocacy that commenced at the beginning of the year. The bill was signed by the Governor on September 9.

The 2020 legislative session concludes the current two-year bill cycle and with it any unresolved items that stalled out in committee or the inactive file die on the vine. In other words, the legislative slate resets in January 2021. Much is left to conquer next year as the state grapples with the ongoing pandemic, recession, grid challenges and climate induced wildfires.

Economic Recovery

Neither a broad economic recovery bond or bill package came together in time to coalesce support in the Capitol. Deliberations in a joint legislative economic recovery working group stalled out, with specific proposals retracted due to concerns around funding. In July, AEE submitted recommendations to the Governor’s Task Force on Jobs and Business Recovery, legislative leadership, energy agency heads, and other key legislative offices on immediate to intermediate actions the state can take now to stimulate economic recovery. AEE will continue to push for these actions next year as decision makers look to tackle the significant economic issues caused by the pandemic.

Wildfire Response and Grid Reliability

During this time of COVID, wildfire risk in California has taken on a new, precarious dimension through changing trends in energy use and demand. The state has entered wildfire season with the majority of households still sheltering in place and depending now more than ever on energy at home for remote work, recreation, distance learning, and more. This has complicated the economic and safety impacts of ongoing and anticipated utility power shut-offs among households and businesses to curtail wildfire risk.

Ultimately, the Legislature and Governor’s Office did not come together on any sort of wildfire mitigation proposal or solution like last year. Towards the end of session there were legislative attempts to come up with additional funding for wildfire protection and resilience programs, along with investments to prepare for the next wildfire season. These efforts did not pan out due to political dynamics and limited timing to broker consensus around the funding mechanism. Given the magnitude of catastrophic fires this year, it is all but certain the Legislature will head into 2021 with immense pressure to focus on a comprehensive wildfire mitigation package. AEE will be working to ensure that advanced energy technologies and services are among the solutions to make the electricity system safer, especially in disaster-prone areas.

In the meantime, we expect energy reliability, resource planning, and the need to upgrade outdated electricity infrastructure will continue to dominate energy policy headlines and discussion. Capacity and energy supply issues have also reanimated the conversation around regional or multi-state collaboration. Despite the historic challenges of moving the RTO conversation forward in the California Legislature, this topic will likely resurface for discussion in 2021 – not just in California, but in other Western states managing similar catastrophes while charting a course toward 100% clean energy. 

Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund Spending Plan

The COVID-induced economic downturn did not spare the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF), the state’s main source of funding for GHG-reducing clean energy and transport programs. Low revenues from the May cap-and-trade auction reignited legislators’ skepticism about the sustainability of the GGRF fund as a reliable funding stream for various programs, especially clean transport programs for passenger vehicles and medium- and heavy-duty fleets. Given the downward revenue trajectory, the Legislature excluded a GGRF funding plan from its joint legislative budget agreement in June.

While the most recent auction in August generated more revenue than anticipated (over $400 million), the Legislature still opted to hold off on adopting a GGRF expenditure plan until 2021. The last auction of the year, taking place on November 17, will provide greater clarity around GGRF resources. As policymakers take GGRF spending decisions up in the next budget cycle, AEE stands ready to help legislators and the Governor’s Office to identify long-term funding strategies equipped to scale the state's advanced energy and clean transportation progress and ensure that all Californians have the ability to benefit from these investments.

As we approach 2021, it is clear that the big picture questions need to be answered to get California on the other side of its multiple crises. AEE is prepared to help with that by working with policymakers to drive toward the solutions the state needs to be more resilient, economically secure, and prepared for what comes next. Most recently, at a press conference on September 11, Gov. Newsom pledged to fast-track action on the state’s clean energy and climate goals, including achieving 100% clean energy by 2045. AEE  stands ready to work with him to identify the most effective pathways to make that happen.

Download AEE's recommendations for economic recovery in California by clicking below. 

Download Recommendations for California

Topics: State Policy Update, California Engagement, Advanced Transportation