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Experts talk law, clean energy policy at USD symposium

With Gov. Jerry Brown's signing of the SBX1-2 legislation April 13, the ideas of renewable portfolio standards and energy law have re-entered the consciousness of Californians over the past week.

By coincidence, the University of San Diego hosted several energy law experts Friday as the school held its third annual Climate & Energy Law Symposium. The new legislation, otherwise known as the California Renewable Energy Resources Act, made it into the conversation a few times as the second of three panels convened in USD's Warren Auditorium.

In introducing the panel as its moderator, Sophie Akins, a partner at Best Best & Krieger who has involved herself in many solar energy and energy-efficient construction projects since joining the firm, explained the significance of the panel given the recent legislation. The California Renewable Energy Resources Act increased the percentage of renewable energy California utilities are required to have as part of their total volume of annual retail sales to 33 percent by 2020.

"The timing of this panel could not have been better," Akins said before the first speaker, Dian Grueneich, took to the podium to kick off the discussion entitled "Policies and Markets for Renewables and Efficiency."

Grueneich is a former commissioner at the California Public Utilities Commission and currently is a partner at Morrison & Foerster LLP. She was joined by Kirsten Engel, professor of law at the University of Arizona; Lincoln Davies, associate professor of law at the University of Utah; and David Spence, associate professor of law, politics and regulation at the University of Texas at Austin. Each panelist discussed from a different angle how renewable energy and efficiency policy is arrived at and how it can, or should, be shaped legally and successfully.

Among the policy approaches Grueneich said has worked well in California but is absent from the national approach is what's called the loading order, which she described as a way of implementing law and policy by breaking it up into categories, including energy efficiency, demand response, distributive generation, renewable generation and the cleanest available fossil fuels. It offers a policy base for how different approaches can be looked at, she said, instead of the lumping together of energy efficiency and renewables, for example, that might be seen federally.

"Not only does that probably undermine efforts to actually do energy efficiency, but it doesn't set a context … People don't like rate increases. And efficiency and renewables are subsidized through the use of small charges on rates.

"How do you decide between the two where you're going to allocate the money? Again, that's what, fundamentally, the loading order does."

Grueneich also mentioned how large a role energy efficiency has played in the implementation efforts of AB 32, California's 2006 climate change law.

"Even though people talk an awful lot about renewables and solar panels on your roof, the reality is that in California, energy efficiency is the driving force in the electricity sector for really having a plan to reduce our emissions," Grueneich said.

While she commended the state's direction and leadership, she said hurdles may exist in giving the new renewable energy law teeth as the economy remains slow, and costly infrastructure projects weigh heavy on tight budgets. She added, however, that given the fact that former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had implemented the 33 percent goal as an executive order in 2008, many utilities have already been aiming for the target for more than two years now, giving them a promising start.

Akins agreed. Among her clients is the city of Corona's department of water and power. How she's seen that utility move forward gives her insight to the preparedness of the state.

"They're a municipal utility that would be subject to this new 33 percent by 2020 standard," Akins said. "And what we see is a lot of the municipal utilities are forming collective consortiums. They already belong to industry groups.

"They're going to be collectively coming together to look at how they can deal with this new requirement. I mean, it's something that's been in the works for a while, so I think they've been pretty prepared for it."

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