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California’s Coal History Leaves Lessons for Renewable Energy Transition

A coal truck drives to the coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant on March 28, 2016 outside Delta, Utah. | George Frey/Getty Images
George Frey/Getty Images

California for many embodies the quintessential future of renewable energy. Although the state has the second-highest total energy consumption in the country due to its high population and large economy, it’s also one of the leading states in energy efficiency. In the last decade, several key legislative rollouts have kickstarted the state’s energy transition into renewables: in 2015, SB 350 mandated that 50% of the state’s electrical power come from renewable sources by 2030. Three years later, then-California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law into place that mandated zero-emission electricity by 2045. Just days ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order to phase out the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. From this vantage point, California may look to be moving toward a fossil-free future. 

What are some of the challeges South Africa is facing in transitioning from coal to reneable energy? Watch "<a data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Earth Focus</a>" episode "<a data-cke-saved-href="" href="">Coal Mining in South Africa</a>."
Coal Mining in South Africa

A closer look at California’s longer energy history across the 19th and 20th century, though, gives us a somewhat different picture. Beginning in the late 1800s, the discovery of enormous natural gas and oil reservoirs in the Central Valley eventually gave rise to the state’s booming fossil fuel economy, turning California into a national suppler of crude oil (since then, the Central Valley has come to be known as the state’s oil capital). As recent as 2018, the state was the seventh-largest producer of crude oil in the country. Meanwhile, in Southern California, notorious oil derricks and fields scattered across numerous counties are still up and running today. From this vantage point, California seems to be snug in a well-thriving fossil fuel industry. 

Given California’s intimate history with natural gas and oil, it might seem surprising to hear that the state has a considerably minor history in producing its other fossil-fuel cousin: coal. Due to the lack of any major coal reserves in the state, Californian coal mining never took off as a major industry as it did in other states like Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Illinois. In 1979, construction plans for an in-state coal power plant in the California Delta near San Francisco was tentatively approved by the Pacific Gas and Electric Company — it was a $2 billion project that never took off. With no major coal reserves and no major extraction, does California have any history with coal? 

As it turns out, there is a history, of a sort, but it is one that primarily relates to consumption and travels across state boundaries. For much of the postwar period, the state has been running on coal-powered electricity imported from various out-of-state power plants across the West. Most notably, the state has imported electrical energy from the Intermountain Power Plant, a major coal plant in Delta, Utah, that has been supplying a significant portion of California’s electricity since the 1980s. A great deal of California’s power is imported from larger regional power grids outside of the state (in 2018, nearly one-third of the state’s electricity came from out-of-state facilities). 

California’s coal history might seem relatively minor in comparison to its other fossil fuel giants. Coal-powered electricity use has been steadily decreasing in recent years. In 2017, coal-powered electricity comprised 4% of California’s total power. Today, California is quickly en route to phase out coal entirely, and switching its major supplies to renewable solar and hydroelectric power.

But the story of California’s coal power is important for three reasons. First, it’s a reminder that our understanding of energy as coming from a single source or in a single form omits its complex life cycles — energy’s origin, conversion, facilitation, and distribution — before something like electricity becomes electricity in the first place. Electricity can be obtained from an array of sources, and consequently is produced by various technologies, such as turbines (the most frequent form is the steam turbine which converts heat into mechanical energy) and photovoltaics. The electronic device on which you’re reading this could be variously powered by fossil, wind, solar, hydro, nuclear, or geothermal energy. Such an outlook illustrates the dangers of quickly assuming electrical energy is increasingly “green,” a common conflation driven by the cultural imagination of electricity as a form of modern renewable energy dominantly sourced from solar and hydroelectric power. As of 2019, only 17% of the total electricity generated in the U.S. comes from renewables, with 62% comprised of fossil fuels. Because the paths to electricity are many and varied, it is easy to miss what’s actually powering what, and how.

Second, California’s coal history raises key issues regarding energy transitions. Although the Intermountain Power Plant is currently on its way to phasing out coal by 2025, it is instead being converted into a natural gas extraction facility — a redevelopment project that could cost more than $650 million. Such incremental energy transitions over immediate investments into renewables demonstrate the failure to prioritize decarbonization efforts in meaningful timeframes in the face of the expanding climate crisis. California’s goal for zero-emission electricity by 2045, for instance, is already five years behind what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reported as the final 2040 threshold to reach global net-zero carbon emissions: in two decades with current emission rates, a 1.5 degrees Celsius boost in global atmospheric warming would amplify and kickstart a new wave of unprecedented environmental catastrophes. 

 A coal truck drives to the coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant on March 28, 2016 outside Delta, Utah. | George Frey/Getty Images
A coal truck drives to the coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant on March 28, 2016 outside Delta, Utah. The plant is a major source of electricity for Los Angeles. | George Frey/Getty Images

Lastly, the story of California and coal illustrates the importance of grasping the larger regional contexts that comprise the state’s networks of energy extraction, distribution, and production. The Intermountain Power Plant is a reminder that the framing of our conversations around local- and state-level energy sustainability and reform must fundamentally be situated across regional, national, and even global contexts. In recent years, AB 813, an energy grid bill that would regionalize California’s power grid in a multistate coalition in the West, has been a topic of much debate (it did not pass the Senate floor in 2018). Such battlegrounds illustrate that the stakes of West’s energy transition are also the stakes of California’s own energy transition. 

A closer look at California’s past and ongoing coal economy reveals a surprising story of interstate implication and intimacy in which regional power grids connect California to its neighbor states in often unexpected and invisible ways. It’s a reminder that the conversations we have around the state’s renewable energy futures require a renewed look at the entwined energy histories that have paved the way for California’s present. 

Top image: A coal truck drives to the coal-fired Intermountain Power Plant. | George Frey/Getty Images

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