Insider Briefing: The Future is Electric
Earthjustice attorney and policy staff discuss the Right to Zero campaign, the victories for clean energy in California, and how our work in California can be modeled in other states.
“Seeing community members hold their representatives accountable is what makes my job a lot more powerful.”
To save lives, protect the climate, and strengthen our economy, Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign is working to transform California’s energy and transportation systems to zero emissions — and California is leading the way for the nation. Last year, we helped usher in a remarkable string of achievements in the Golden State, from a legislative mandate for 100 percent clean energy by 2045 to the rejection of major fossil fuel infrastructure projects.
This briefing, a conversation on Feb. 19 with Earthjustice supporters, was moderated by Teju Adisa-Farrar and includes a discussion with Earthjustice Staff Attorney Adrian Martinez and California Policy Advocate Erica Martinez about SB 100, the source for zero emmissions electricity, the importance of electric vehicles and how to make them more accessible, as well as how supporters can make their voices heard.
Teju Adisa Farrar:
Erica is based in Sacramento and focuses on clean air and clean energy issues. She helps campaigns move the transportation and electricity sectors to zero emissions and addresses the broader environmental issues affecting our state — including water, toxics, and food safety.
Adrian is based in Los Angeles. He works on clean air, clean energy, and environmental justice issues. He’s also known as @LASmogGuy on Twitter so if you’re not following him, you should.
Tell us about Earthjustice’s Right to Zero campaign
The Right to Zero campaign was born out of air quality work that we were doing in California — particularly in the Los Angeles region and the San Joaquin Valley. A while back, they did an analysis that showed that in order to meet our greenhouse gas and air quality standards, we really needed to move to zero emissions and a lightbulb kind of went off that we need to galvanize our work in California around achieving zero emissions.
We had several great attorneys on staff, working throughout the region, ranging from working on the public utilities commission to working with agency staff. This campaign involves litigation, advocacy, and there’s a significant communications part — so we really had gotten the resources at Earthjustice together and we set forth this big, bold vision for California that we need to achieve 100% zero emissions for our energy sector, for our transportation sector, and also for our buildings.
We’ve had a lot of successes on the local level and on the state level that we’ll talk about but one thing I want to reference is, the California office didn’t really have a presence in Sacramento until a little bit ago. A key part of our Right to Zero campaign is understanding that in order to achieve this vision in California, we’re going to need a significant presence in Sacramento because Sacramento is a powerful tool to passing, and for looking at, bold legislation — so having Erica Martinez on board was pretty critical.
What is SB 100, and how did it come to pass in California?
Senate Bill 100 accelerates when we have to meet the targets of our current Renewable Portfolio Standard program (RPS) — to 50% by 2026, 60% by 2030, and 100% by 2045. The idea is that we will come up with a plan for how to manage our grid — to make sure that the energy California needs, is provided in an affordable manner from sources that are carbon-free.
SB 100 came along during the legislative year. At that time, Senate President pro Tem Kevin de León came to the environmental community and said he thought we needed to be bolder and to act quicker on transitioning to 100% clean energy in California.
Hawaiʻi had already made strides in that direction and we wanted to make sure that California was also moving in that direction. California had been very lucky to go down a path to establish the California Renewable Portfolio Standard. We started in 2002 and set certain targets, and over the years, we kept passing legislation to make the targets more ambitious as the state was moving in a direction to achieve those targets more quickly. We knew that Los Angeles and San Diego — at the time — were the number one and two solar cities in the country, and Fresno was the number two city in the country based on solar per capita. We also knew that the county with the largest concentration of wind capacity was Kern. With all that in mind, we all were like, ‘Yes, let’s do it. Let’s increase our target to 100%.’
The coalition that came together to really push the legislation was a pretty awesome effort from every single skill set that was needed to move this ambitious bill. We had grassroots groups who were heavily involved in doing visits at the district level, going to city council meetings, and talking to their neighbors and friends about why we needed to move to 100%, and why it was actually achievable.
In Sacramento, we had lobbyists, and some of the organizations that have a presence here, making the connection with the legislators to give them the information that they needed to see that there was indeed a path to achieve our targets quicker than we had established, and that establishing the 100% was doable.
Grassroots activists were a huge partner in this endeavor, they made sure to contact the governor’s office a lot, which is good. Folks who were interested and wanted to make sure they were paying attention also got involved. We had over 70,000 people who sent postcards, emails, or made visits over the two-year period it took to get SB 100 over the line.
It was a great collaborative effort from environmental justice groups, religious groups, labor, business groups, science organizations, and it took every single partner to make that happen.
It was very exciting when California was able to pass SB 100 and we’ve seen that other states are also moving in that direction.
How will electricity be produced?
SB 100 said that the state now needs to come up with a plan on how we get to the 100% mark. Once that planning session begins, we will start to see experts and community members weigh-in to see what the right sources are for us to make sure are in place, so that we can ensure that the energy sources for electricity are there as we transition to 100%. But for right now, I think the state is continuing to move in a direction to invest in wind and solar projects, and also to make sure that energy storage becomes a bigger part of the equation so that we can make sure that we do have the electricity we need.
There may be other innovations that may not be present to us right at this moment. The way SB 100 was written allows for those other innovations to be taken advantage of. We didn’t want to lock ourselves into only a couple of policy choices and then later on, find out that there’s this great new creative source that we just didn’t know about at this time. We look forward to figuring out the best way to make sure that the electricity that is produced, is reliable, affordable, and continues to keep our air clean.
We are trying to be as careful as possible and as diligent as possible with our partners to make sure that this issue of either building more dams, or hydroelectric dams, to contribute to getting to 100% renewable — is always understood in the context of the impacts and consequences it could have on salmon or other fish that may be in our oceans or in our waters. As much as we want to get 100% clean energy, it cannot and it should not be at the expense of hurting our oceans, rivers, or the fish that depend on healthy systems.
How can we expand this work across the U.S.?
We need to clean up our energy grid — how we get energy. Moving away from coal as the greater source than solar and wind is critical. Earthjustice is doing a lot of work on this throughout the nation with a lot of partners in lots of states. But even as we transition to zero emissions, a lot of studies show that electric vehicles are critical to meeting our air quality and climate goals. The Union of Concerned Scientists have found that running cars on the grid in every state has lower greenhouse gas emissions. So I think the key is we need to both move more to zero emissions vehicles, but we also need to battle dirty energy sources like coal and natural gas power — which has been a core part of what we’ve been doing in California to clean up our energy grid.
Buses are important vehicles to focus on because these are vehicles that are everyday throughout the country. People see the bus, they ride the bus, and it’s a way to get electric vehicles into the broader market.
We had several victories on the local level — LA Metro committed to 100% zero emissions and we got the state of California to commit to go 100% zero emissions buses. Now we’re seeing a lot of bus work growing throughout the nation and even the world. So this is a good type of campaign that we’re seeing spur throughout the nation and a lot of it was mimicking the work that was happening in California.
The Trump administration is trying to make it harder to get electric vehicles, so we’ll be seeing a lot of advocacy to make sure it can move electric vehicles in all sorts of sectors. I think there’s a lot of opportunity at the local level to get electric transportation because inherently, a lot of the decisions are local. It’s city councils, it’s mayors, it’s state legislatures that are making these decisions. It’s an acceptable piece of advocacy for residents to say, ‘we want you to treat climate and air pollution seriously and we want our state to purchase zero emission vehicles so we’re not polluting our neighborhoods.’ I think expanding the transportation work for zero emissions is going to be a big thing in the next couple of years.
How can we make zero emission vehicles more accessible?
We’re currently working at the public utilities commission in California to alleviate some of the barriers to having an all-electric vehicle if you do not have a garage or driveway. It might be workplace charging, it might be centralized EV fast charging — which is a way you can charge your car very quickly. We’re currently pushing California to invest a lot to make electric vehicles way more accessible to the broader range of the public. Earthjustice is working with the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups to push for robust investments throughout California. It’s my understanding we’re also doing some work in other states to help advance charging. This is a critical issue because if we want to tackle our climate problems, we need to make sure that the people who are most impacted have the option to use truly clean and zero emission cars.
Getting apartment buildings to do a lot of clean energy — whether it’s charging or solar — can be very difficult. Part of it is getting utilities programs in place to make it easier for landlords, and then also make it easier for tenants to ask and have laws that help in this respect. Getting apartment buildings to clean up is going to be a big task. It’s something we really need to focus on in the next five years.
How can supporters make their voices heard?
City councils have a lot of power over their power. In some cities, you even have municipally run utilities. For example in Los Angeles, you have the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. It was community pressure that pushed them to not invest in the future of natural gas power plants. There was a big victory for advocates in California on that recently. A lot of the work is at the utilities commissions and city and state governments to push these forward-looking policies and the key to a lot of it is to have grassroots pressure. And you have to have good policy advocates in state capitols and city halls — who can help leverage this people-power that’s pushing for zero emissions — to actually make decisions on buying clean energy, pushing clean energy, and not permitting new dirty coal or dirty natural gas plants.
Everyone has a utility commission in their state or the city and these are the entities who are making the decisions about our energy futures every day, so folks should be weighing in to demand a zero emissions future.
Every city has a fleet of cars, trucks, and as they’re purchasing new equipment, we need people all over the country to stand up and say, ‘we don’t want vehicles running on a fuel that destroys our air and planet.’ The Right to Zero campaign and a lot of the campaigns that are happening nationally are important because they’re a paradigm shift. If we’re going to beat back the fossil fuel industry, we really need to stop purchasing their products. And the way you can do it is to get a bus fleet to convert, to get vehicles to convert, and clean out our buildings. We understand it’s going to be tough and it’s going to be a long road, but unless we start making these decisions and force our states and cities and utilities to do it now, we’re always going to be 5 to 20 years behind.
For things folks can do, please follow Right to Zero on social media @RightToZero. I also encourage you to visit the Earthjustice Right to Zero page for more information on the Right to Zero campaign. You can visit earthjustice.org/action for petitions to sign and other actions you can take to help defend our litigation and some of our policy work. And when you sign up, we will do everything we can to give you the tools you need to take action where it’s needed most. Our website can also help you figure out who your senators and representatives are so that you know who to send your letters to or who to call. We can also help you craft an effective action letter.
You can also call your local city council, your state legislators. These elected officials really respond to these actions by their constituents, so if you call them, if you email them, people are keeping track of how many emails they receive on a certain bill or a certain issue. When you make a phone call, that’s like gold because most people aren’t calling their city councils or state legislators, so whenever they get lots of calls on a certain issue or even two or three calls, that makes a huge impression on staff who are working in that office.
Even with SB 100, with lots of these changes that we want — it’s not going to happen overnight. We really need the grassroots partners and litigation efforts right now, to remind and keep reminding legislators and representatives of what policies you want to see enacted in your state. And that they need to be responsive to you since you either helped elect them or you are a resident of your state pushing for a cleaner and a better future. Also, you could write letters to your editors — on our website, you can find tips on how to maximize the impact of your letter to the editor and get published. You can also take advantage of public commenting periods, usually when cities create a plan, you can comment. So becoming a little more aware and participating in the local process.
There’s a menu of options that you can do and it just depends on which one works best for you. The most important thing we can say, is that all of our successes and all of our efforts become stronger when folks actually engage and call and show up. As a lobbyist in Sacramento, I can tell you how powerful that is when we see community members show up. Seeing community members hold their representatives accountable is what makes my job a lot more powerful — when I have partnership with folks that are doing those things.
This text is edited and condensed from the audio recording.
It may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future.