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California Aims For Clean Energy by Imposing Demands on its Suppliers

By Felicity Barringer
THE NEW YORK TIMES


SACRAMENTO, CALIF.

In the Rocky Mountain states and the fast-growing desert Southwest, more than 20 power plants, designed to burn coal that is plentiful and cheap, are on the drawing boards. Much of the power, their owners expected, would be destined for the people of California.

But such plants would also be among the country’s most potent producers of carbon dioxide, the king of gases linked to global warming. So California has just delivered a new message to these energy suppliers: If you cannot produce power with the lowest possible emissions of these greenhouse gases, we are not interested.

“When your biggest customer says, ‘I ain’t buying,’ you rethink,” said Hal Harvey, the environment program director at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in Menlo Park, Calif. “When you have 38 million customers you don’t have access to, you rethink. Selling to Phoenix is nice. Las Vegas is nice. But they aren’t California.”

California’s decision to impose stringent demands on suppliers even outside its borders, broadened by the Legislature on Aug. 31 and awaiting the governor’s signature, is but one example of the state’s wide-ranging effort to remake its energy future.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature and the Republican governor also agreed at that time on legislation to reduce industrial carbon dioxide emissions by 25 percent by 2020, a measure that affects not only power plants but also other large producers of carbon dioxide, including oil refineries and cement plants.

The state’s aim is to reduce emissions of climate-changing gases produced by burning coal, oil and gas. Other states, particularly New York, are moving in some of the same directions, but no state is moving as aggressively on as many fronts. No state has been at it longer. No state is putting more at risk.

Whether all this is visionary or deluded depends on one’s perspective. This is the state that in the early 1970s jump-started the worldwide adoption of catalytic converters, the devices that neutralize most smog-forming chemicals emitted by tailpipes. This is the state whose per capita energy consumption has been almost flat for 30 years, even as per capita consumption has risen 50 percent nationally.

Taking on global warming is a tougher challenge. Though California was second in the nation only to Texas in emissions of carbon dioxide in 2001, and 12th in the world, it produced just 2.5 percent of the world’s total. At best, business leaders asked in a legislative hearing, what difference could California’s cuts make? And at what cost?

California, in fact, is making a huge bet: that it can reduce emissions without wrecking its economy, and therefore inspire other states — and countries — to follow its example on slowing climate change.

Initiatives addressing climate change are everywhere in California, pushed by legislators, by regulators, by cities, by foundations, by businesses and by investors.