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Obama Discusses Power Grid Upgrade with Industry Leaders

The President sat down with representatives and CEOs from more than 80 companies who have all pledged to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency or increase their use of renewable power.

by David R. Baker, San Francisco Chronicle / October 20, 2015
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden speak with CEO of Namaste Solar Electric, Inc., Blake Jones, while looking at solar panels at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. wikicommons/Ekabhishek

(TNS) -- Pacific Gas and Electric Co., California’s largest utility, joined a White House effort Monday to rally business support for action on climate change, with the company’s top executive taking part in a roundtable discussion with President Obama.

PG&E signed on to the American Business Act on Climate Pledge, an initiative started by Obama in July to gather private-sector support in advance of the next round of international climate talks. To date, 81 companies have joined, all pledging to cut their greenhouse gas emissions, improve energy efficiency or boost their use of renewable power.

“If we are at the forefront of this, if we are the innovators, if we are the early adaptors, if we are the example-setters, then we’re the ones who are going to be creating and selling the products and services that help the entire world adapt to a clean-energy future,” Obama said after the meeting, according to a transcript from Roll Call. “If we are lagging behind, it’s not going to happen.”

Monday’s roundtable included executives from some of the initiative’s most recent members — Berkshire Hathaway Energy Co., Hershey Co., Johnson & Johnson and Intel Corp. PG&E Corp. CEO Tony Earley spoke of the need to upgrade the nation’s electricity grid so it can better handle the rapid growth of solar and wind power.

“A modern grid is absolutely essential to integrating and optimizing all of the new clean energy technologies we’re seeing today and to our success in achieving our shared goals for reducing greenhouse gases,” Earley said.

With international climate discussions set to begin next month in Paris, Obama has moved aggressively to cement his legacy on climate change. Many of his steps, most notably his Clean Power Plan for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, have faced fierce resistance from the Republican Congress as well as many states.

Much like the proposed climate agreement to be discussed in Paris, the president’s business initiative does not dictate steps that every member must take. Instead, each company develops and pledges to meet its own goals for fighting climate change. Other members include Alcoa, Apple, Bank of America, Cargill, Coca-Cola, General Motors, Goldman Sachs, Google, Levi Strauss & Co., Microsoft, PepsiCo, UPS and Walmart.

PG&E was among the first wave of American companies to call for action on climate change, 10 years ago. And like the rest of California’s utilities, the company has been under state orders to increase its use of renewable power. Under a law Gov. Jerry Brown signed this month, California utilities must obtain half their electricity from the sun, wind and other renewable sources by the end of 2030.

“That clearly is feasible,” Earley said last week, shortly before addressing the Commonwealth Club of California. “We will do it.”

On Monday, PG&E also pledged to invest $3 billion per year through 2020 to upgrade California’s electricity grid. The company plans to weatherize 500,000 homes, spend $100 million over the next five years adding electric and hybrid vehicles to its fleet, and eliminate leaks of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — from its natural gas distribution network.

The utility also wants to automate the process of connecting its customers’ new rooftop solar arrays to the grid, an effort that currently takes three days. More than 200,000 of the utility’s customers now have solar arrays, representing one-fourth of all home solar installations in the nation.

PG&E has, however, become embroiled in an increasingly bitter fight with solar companies. The utility has proposed cutting California’s financial incentives for solar homeowners, a move that solar leasing and installation companies say is designed to damage their industry and protect PG&E’s monopoly status. California’s other utilities have proposed similar changes. PG&E insists the changes are needed to ensure that all utility customers, including those with solar arrays, pay for maintaining the grid.

©2015 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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