In 2010, California used over 280,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity, and over 12,000 million therms (MM therms) of natural gas. By 2020, this usage is projected to rise to over 315,000 GWh and almost 13,000 MM therms. Using energy wisely and efficiently is a key part of minimizing environmental impacts and maximizing the long-term sustainability of development projects in California and beyond. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) Guidelines Appendix F (and now also Appendix G) requires Initial Studies (ISs) and Environmental Impact Reports (EIRs) for proposed projects to include a discussion of potential energy impacts, with particular emphasis on avoiding or reducing inefficient, wasteful, and unnecessary consumption of energy. Consideration of the sources of energy for a project, the impacts of a project’s energy use, and methods for mitigating potential significant impacts is a critical part of environmental planning. 

The first point to consider is the environmental setting of the project. What energy sources from the surrounding region will the project be drawing on? How does the project’s mix of energy sources compare to typical use in the region? What information is available on the current and projected energy consumption in the region? Answering these questions provides the context for a project’s energy use and demonstrates a thorough understanding of that context. There are a variety of resources that can provide relevant information, including the California Energy Consumption (CEC) database, the California Energy Demand (CED) 2010-2020 revised forecast, and the records of utility providers. 

With this context established, a thorough analysis of the energy impacts of the project is another essential element of planning documentation. The exact nature of this analysis will differ from project to project, but there are some key factors that should be covered in most EIRs, including:

  • energy requirements, by amount and fuel type, for each stage of the project: construction, operation, maintenance, and removal;
  • effects on local and regional energy supplies, and on requirements for additional capacity;
  • impact on peak and base period demands for energy;
  • compliance with existing energy standards; and
  • projected transportation energy use requirements, and overall use of efficient transportation alternatives. 

The CEQA review process uses significance criteria to evaluate whether a given project has the potential to result in significant environmental impacts. Although these criteria can sometimes differ from project to project, a project’s impacts will generally be considered significant if it encourages large amounts of fuel, water, or energy use, results in the inefficient use of energy relative to the local area, requires the construction of additional energy infrastructure facilities, or conflicts with existing local energy efficiency and renewable energy standards. To meet requirements, a project’s documentation must highlight whether the project seems likely to meet any of these criteria. If it does, there are a number of mitigation options to be considered, both during construction and operation, that can help ensure that the projects’ impacts are not significant, including:

  • Recycling: Identify a minimum percentage of construction materials such as cement and asphalt that will be recycled during construction. Set a target percentage for recycling operational waste of at least 75%.
  • Vehicle use: Ensure that vehicles employed during construction use engines that are less than 10 years old, or have the equivalent fuel consumption of a newer engine. Prohibit construction vehicles being left idle at the project site.
  • Electricity use: Set ambitious thresholds for electricity use, either on a per capita or per square foot basis. 5800kw per capita, which represents 30% below 2005 California per capita electricity use, is a good benchmark to aim for.
  • Transport: Plan a viable bicycle and pedestrian access route. Implement a bus/shuttle system that connects to existing regional transit.
  • Temperature: Require all structures to be well-insulated to ensure reduced use of air-conditioning and heating. If appropriate, consider planting street trees for shading to maintain a cool environment. 

Due consideration of energy impacts is crucial to the success of any large-scale project in California today. With aspirations of achieving 100 percent clean energy by 2045, California’s commitment to sustainable communities, greenhouse gas emissions reduction, and climate action will continue to require close examination of energy use as part of environmental planning, including in terms of environmental setting context, impacts, and appropriate mitigation measures for the future.

FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS), an ADEC Innovation, advances sustainable practices around the world and helps organizations grow and operate responsibly.