10/02/2014 11:40 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Rays of Hope in California

Once you discover yourself to be someone who cares deeply about global warming -- someone, for example, who might at least once or twice have woken in the night worried about what the woefully inadequate response to climate change might mean for your children or grandchildren -- you may also discover that sometimes you swing between determination and despair. At least, that's been my experience.

It is also why I love the things that lend a sense of realistic hope -- and a reminder of our capacity to genuinely address this great crisis of our time.

Living in California is one of these hopeful things for me because even as we experience a serious drought (widely thought to be, at least in part, a result of global warming) we also are the nation's leader in the most essential climate solution: the transition to renewable energy.


California produces more solar energy than any other state in the nation. In clean tech, more generally, the Golden State has ranked first in the nation for the fifth consecutive year, according to the 2014 U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index. In this overall leadership in renewable energy, green buildings, and other ways of powering modern life that minimize harm to nature, California is followed by Massachusetts, Oregon, and Colorado. At the bottom of the list: Mississippi, West Virginia, and Alaska.

In fact, the state set a new record earlier this year when it produced enough solar energy to provide electricity to about 3 million homes or 18% of the overall power demand. And while California ranks 13th in the nation in wind power (behind the leaders, Iowa, South Dakota, and Kansas) it set another significant record in 2013 of generating enough electricity from wind to power more than 1 million homes.

Coming from the nation's most populated state -- these achievements are particularly significant ones because they show what can be done, for the benefit of the environment, the economy, and our families' health.

So how has California been so successful?

While our state has a long history of energy innovation and efficiency, recent advances have been inspired in significant part by California's 2006 landmark bipartisan climate bill, the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32). The law requires a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, with one-third of electricity coming from solar, wind, and other renewable sources.

California's historic advances in transitioning from a fossil-fuel economy to a renewable energy economy are being put into practice through a "cap-and-trade" system, which inspires improvements in the way utilities generate electricity, automakers design cars and refineries make fuel. The law places a cap on greenhouse gases emitted by the state's largest polluters, and then lowers that cap every year, creating a market for innovations that will help companies reduce emissions at lowest cost.

And there has been no shortage of innovations. Among the most notable are those inspired by entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, former founder of PayPal, current CEO of Tesla Motors and chairman of Solar City. (He is also chairman of Space X, a space transport services company, but that seems slightly beside the point.)

A poster boy for clean energy, Musk is also proving just how profitable it can be: Stock in Tesla Motors was up 625 percent, and SolarCity up 340 percent, from September 2013 to September 2014, according to Forbes.

While that kind of economic success is sure to interest other business leaders in clean energy, California's overall clean energy leadership is also delivering direct benefits to Californians through new jobs, energy savings, cleaner air -- and, not coincidentally, improved public health.

To be sure, there is a much more work to be done. But for me, this is strong evidence that positive change does happen -- when there is the right combination of public support, smart legislation, and that other natural resource that is as renewable as solar and wind power: human ingenuity.

(This post appeared in an earlier version on Moms Clean Air Force.)