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Decarbonizing California

Michael Colvin, BS ’05 Environmental Economics and Policy ’07 Master of Public Policy

Photo courtesy Environmental Defense Fund.

Michael Colvin recognizes that few children grow up thinking they want to become a utility regulator. “It’s not nearly as cool as being an astronaut,” he says with a chuckle. But through his work at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Colvin has done some pretty impressive stuff. To advance the fight against climate change, he’s devoted his career to decarbonizing the state’s massive energy grid and ensuring an affordable, clean, and safe energy system for all Californians.

“Greening” The State's Largest Emitters

Colvin entered the College of Natural Resources knowing he wanted to do something with the environment, but he wasn’t sure what, why, or how. Then he attended a lecture at Wheeler Hall by former vice president Al Gore about the urgent need to combat climate change. “I vividly remember turning to my friend and saying, ‘This is it. This is what I am doing,’” he says.

It was in the Energy and Society class taught by Daniel Kammen, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group, that Colvin was galvanized by the connection between utilities and climate change. “There was something extraordinarily appealing to me about understanding this large, fixed infrastructure and how the choices we make about the money we spend on it can lead to less pollution,” he says.

Energy infrastructure was very much in California headlines at the time. The state experienced significant rolling blackouts in 2001. That provided impetus for the state legislature to pass, in 2006, the groundbreaking Assembly Bill 32, which established a carbon cap-and-trade program and the state’s 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction target.

After earning his Master of Public Policy at Berkeley’s Goldman School, Colvin joined the CPUC in 2008 as a policy analyst. He was involved in launching programs targeted at increasing energy efficiency, which not only reduced emissions but helped the state to defer the construction of a new power plant indefinitely. “It is hugely important for fighting climate change to figure out how we spend money on the largest source of emissions in the state,” he says.

“I got to be a part of the conversation about how, if we decarbonize the power sector, we can leverage that to other parts of the economy.”

The Commission incentivized appliance makers to produce more energy-efficient models, and then subsidized those “greener” appliances and smart thermostats for lower-income consumers. “One third of our citizens cannot afford their utility bill,” Colvin says. “If we as a state free up a little extra money in their monthly budget, it can have an outsized influence on everything in their lives.”

Colvin later served as an energy advisor to two CPUC commissioners and developed a reputation as a creative thinker on thorny issues, such as establishing the first electric vehicle charging rates. He also served for a year as chief of staff for CPUC’s safety and enforcement division, where he focused on integrating risk-based decision-making into how utilities make new infrastructure investments. Colvin credits his multidisciplinary training at Rausser College for his ability to approach problems from multiple perspectives

"We set up increasingly aggressive targets and saw that the world would keep spinning if we decoupled energy and emissions from economic development."
— Michael Colvin

California not only succeeded in meeting its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets, but it did so ahead of schedule. “Something that was thought to be impossible ended up being very achievable,” he says. “We set up increasingly aggressive targets and saw that the world would keep spinning if we decoupled energy and emissions from economic development.”

Affordable, Clean, and Safe Energy

Colvin joined EDF in 2018 and was promoted to director of its California Energy Program the following year. “I was always impressed with EDF because it combined the best from law and policy with science, economics, and business,” he says.

His focus at EDF is on transitioning California’s energy markets from gas-powered electricity to clean energy, which means advocating for more solar and wind power and infrastructure to get that renewable energy where it’s needed, when it’s needed. The growing demand from electric vehicles and appliances requires not only converting the existing grid but preparing to grow a greener grid by an estimated seven times its current size.

Colvin has drawn attention to the gas system’s legacy infrastructure with a white paper that has been cited across the country. EDF is also working on completely eliminating emissions from the power sector by 2045. “We have seen multiple times when the California electric grid has hit 100 percent renewable,” he says. “Fifteen years ago, that was inconceivable.”

Colvin advances EDF’s goals in myriad ways: helping legislators draft clean energy legislation and budget proposals, serving as an expert witness, filing briefs on energy standards, speaking at conferences, and writing blog posts. “No two days are ever the same,” he says.

He devotes some of those days to Rausser College of Natural Resources. He currently serves as chair of the College’s advisory board, two decades after serving as the board’s student representative. “It has been a professional joy to be a booster and see the College on an extraordinarily strong footing,” he says. “Rausser College is a leading voice on what we can do next for the environment. It’s something I want to continue to be a part of.”