Sacramento & San Francisco

Following an all-too-brief weekend amongst the sequoias in a snowy Kings Canyon National Park (and some more limit-pushing for the hire car), my time in (otherwise sunny) California ended with a few days split between the state capital of Sacramento and San Francisco.

The visit to the capital provided me with an opportunity to engage with some of the key State Government agencies leading and supporting California’s ambitious climate targets. Again, there are some key similarities with Western Australia’s experience to date:

  • A growing pipeline of projects
  • A public service for whom the pace and volume of new applications is proving difficult
  • Competition with other jurisdictions to attract proponents
  • The tension between going fast, but also having social and environmental guardrails and ensuring better community engagement
  • An acknowledgement that the regulatory environment is complex, and approval processes take time
    • But also a reminder that, even with the criticisms that are levelled at CEQA and other approvals processes, the economy continues to grow and projects continue to be approved
  • Early engagement with impacted communities is critical
  • Approvals for projects involving relatively new technology or approaches take longer, as regulation isn’t always fit for purpose, or regulators don’t always have a strong technical understanding

Some key learnings that came through:

  • California are actively seeking to better coordinate across agencies to support project development, rather than requiring proponents to work simultaneously across multiple agencies
  • The cost and regulatory environment is seeing the state as a great place for innovation; for technology to be developed, but not always scale up (land, bricks and mortar are sometimes cheaper elsewhere)
  • Unions play a larger role in the workforce and skills conversation than they appear to in Australia
  • In the same way that the State is seeking to create a ‘single door’ approach for project proponents, there are emerging examples of regions doing the same from a community engagement and community benefits perspective – setting up Community Benefits Organisations to engage with project developers on behalf of the community’s various interest groups, to try to make the consultation process easier and more inclusive for both sides. It’s an interesting model that I want to explore a little more.

In engaging with different interest groups and those with different backgrounds, differing narratives around the transition also emerge – some of which are at odds with each other. For example: The energy industry, particularly the fossil fuel sector, are bullish on the role of CCS and related technologies. Others, such as the author and academic Mark Z. Jacobson, argue strongly in their research that a mixture of wind, solar and hydro – backed up by batteries and storage – can provide ample renewable energy (cost-effectively), and that CCS, DAC and blue hydrogen are expensive distractions.

At a Federal level (and as a State in California) there is very much an ‘all of the above’ approach being taken to the transition – and this is reflected in the grants and subsidies that are being made available through the Department of Energy and Inflation Reduction Act for a very broad array of potential solutions. This approach obviously provides for some growth and innovation in a wide variety of areas that may have meaningful future application, but no doubt is also applying funds to more speculative solutions, when those same funds could be used to better support the scaling or roll-out of existing and proven technology. It was interesting to hear from Professor Sally Benson, of Stanford, who spent two years as Deputy Director for Energy and Chief Strategist for the Energy Transition at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under the Biden administration. Her through line was that it is ‘all hands on deck’ but that we want everyone rowing in the same direction. Again, the importance of getting and keeping people engaged and on board was deemed key to that; but also the difficulties associated with that were acknowledged.

The whole exercise has been a good reminder that policy doesn’t happen in a vacuum, the interests, biases and beliefs of policy-makers, and the narrative that is developed and delivered to the broader public also matter a great deal.

1 thought on “Sacramento & San Francisco”

  1. Katherine Allen

    Your further observations about Community Benefits Organisations will be very interesting. There are several examples of this already within parts of the Mid West, which have had varying levels of success over time.

    The key considerations for my mind are: a) They are often reliant on personal relationships in establishment, therefore governance structures need to be robust enough to combat this issue over time; b) what is the appropriate scale of these organisations to ensure that the WIIFM proposition for both proponents and community is appropriate/relevent enough to get buy-in from both parties; c) avoiding duplication of administrative/governance effort by using appropriate entities where they already exist. A great concept worth exploring further.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *