Monday, December 1, 2008

Villaraigosa unveils solar plan for Los Angeles

Villaraigosa unveils solar plan for Los Angeles
The mayor's proposal aims to have solar power meet one-tenth of L.A.'s energy needs by 2020. But skeptics wonder if the plan will be cost-efficient and friendly to private enterprise.
By David Zahniser and Phil Willon 
November 25, 2008
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled an ambitious long-range plan Monday for securing enough solar power to meet one-tenth of the city's energy needs by 2020, a move aimed at making L.A. a hub of the solar-energy industry.

Appearing at a South Los Angeles manufacturing plant where solar panels are made, Villaraigosa said the initiative will help the Department of Water and Power wean itself off of fossil fuels -- natural gas and coal -- as part of the effort to address global warming.

The plan calls for enough solar panels to produce 1,280 megawatts of power, a goal that would be reached through a combination of private and public generating facilities and the installation of solar panels on homes.

"Nobody's contemplated that many megawatts for one city," said Rhonda Mills, Southern California director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies and a solar power advocate.

The announcement Monday is the latest in a series of renewable energy initiatives touted by the mayor in recent weeks, including using redevelopment funds to lure "clean" technology companies and investing city pension dollars in environmentally friendly companies.

Shifting Los Angeles to cleaner fuels could buttress both Villaraigosa's run for reelection and any future run for governor. If he runs in 2010, Villaraigosa would likely face state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, an avid environmentalist.

"L.A. has everything it takes to make this [solar plan] work," said Villaraigosa, standing alongside environmentalists, union leaders and City Council members. "We have the sun in abundancy. We have the space. We have the largest municipal utility in the country."

Still, one DWP watchdog questioned the financial underpinnings of the plan

"There is one huge assumption here -- that they'll get these huge tax credits, volume discounts and economies of scale," said Jack Humphreville, a neighborhood council member who has been pressing the DWP to appoint a ratepayer advocate. "I have serious questions about whether that is pie-in-the-sky or not."

DWP General Manager and Chief Executive H. David Nahai said his agency will spend the next 90 days developing a financial analysis of the solar plan, including its effect on ratepayers.

Under the plan, the largest share of solar power, 500 megawatts, would come from generating facilities built by private-sector companies in the Mojave Desert.

An additional 380 megawatts would be achieved through smaller programs, including one that would help low-income residents add solar panels to their homes and another that would allow DWP customers to purchase shares of city-owned solar plants.

Voters will decide on another part of the mayor's solar plan on March 3, at the same time that Villaraigosa seeks a second and final four-year term. That ballot measure would allow the DWP to install and own 400 megawatts of rooftop solar panels by 2014. Villaraigosa and the council have been criticized in recent weeks over that proposal, which was conceived by an organization with strong ties to the union that represents DWP employees.

Business leaders contend that the ballot measure was written by and for DWP employee unions and would lock out companies that specialize in rooftop solar panels.

Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said he is encouraged to see the mayor place a greater emphasis on private-sector solar initiatives. But he said there are unanswered questions about the solar ballot measure's effect on electrical rates.

"We still have a concern that the cost of the ballot initiative has not been laid out," he said.

Villaraigosa said the solar plan could lead to higher rates as soon as 2011. But City Council President Eric Garcetti noted that coal, one of the DWP's cheapest -- and most polluting -- energy sources, will also become more expensive as Congress moves to impose a carbon tax.

"Coal is not going to be the same price that it is today," he said.

Zahniser and Willon are Times staff writers.

L.A. council orders solar rooftop measure drafted
If the council OKs it by Nov. 7, the initiative to add solar panels would be on the March ballot. The panels would provide 400 megawatts to commercial and other buildings by 2013.
By David Zahniser 
8:03 PM PDT, October 28, 2008
The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to draft a solar rooftop measure for the March 3 ballot, even though officials with the Department of Water and Power still don't know what the initiative would do to electrical rates.

On a 14-0 vote, the council instructed City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo to write the ballot language for the solar plan, which was crafted in large part by officials at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union that represents DWP employees.

Although DWP officials said the plan could cost anywhere from $1.5 billion to $3 billion, they have not yet produced a rate study that explains whether it would lead to higher electricity bills.

"Unfortunately, we don't have the time to fully understand and analyze this proposal," said Councilman Richard Alarcon, who voted to draft the ballot measure anyway.

The council must decide by Nov. 7 whether to put the initiative on the ballot. DWP General Manager H. David Nahai said he expected to know before then whether the plan would lead to rate increases.

The DWP has already made decisions that will cause ratepayers' electric bills to rise nearly 24% from 2006 to 2010, with some of the proceeds helping to pay for renewable energy. Under the solar proposal, the city would add rooftop panels capable of producing 400 megawatts to commercial, industrial and governmental buildings by 2013. Each panel would be owned by the DWP and installed by DWP workers.

The ballot measure, known formally as the Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles Act of 2008, was sponsored by the labor advocacy group Working Californians and quickly embraced by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council. Working Californians spokesman Bob Cherry said he doesn't expect ratepayers to face an additional burden from the solar plan.

"The DWP has money budgeted right now, under the current rate structure, for additional energy generation," he said. "They can just put that into solar."

No representative of any environmental group testified during Tuesday's hearing. Two solar advocates stood in the back of the council chamber monitoring the discussion.

"I'm still not convinced that the financing plan has been explained," said Mary Luevano, a legislative advocate for the group Global Green USA.

Labor leaders were far more effusive, saying the solar energy plan would clean the environment while providing a major boost to the economy.

"We know that this act is going to produce hundreds and hundreds of good middle-class jobs," said Maria Elena Durazo, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. The union umbrella organization often plays a pivotal role in city elections.

Durazo was joined by representatives of the IBEW, Working Californians and other advocacy groups, including the pro-union Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and SCOPE, or Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education.

Nahai said the cost of the solar measure would depend on the amount of federal tax credits available for solar initiatives.Although solar power is currently more expensive than other sources of energy, Nahai predicted that the plan would change that.

"By doing this, I think we'll . . . contribute to the price coming down," he said.

The solar program could be implemented without going to voters, according to the council's top policy advisor. Villaraigosa's appointees on the DWP board could simply approve such an initiative and send it to the council for a vote, Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller said.

"You could do it without going to the ballot," he told the council.

Zahniser is a Times staff writer.

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