Cloudy Forecast for LA's Solar Power Vote

On Tuesday, Angelenos will vote on Measure B, a plan to install 400 megawatts of solar panels around Los Angeles.

Based on the title alone – the Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles Program – the measure should pass resoundingly in a city that has consistently ranked at the top of most-polluted cities lists.

But Measure B's passage is anything but assured.

Controversies have erupted over how hastily the proposal was put on the ballot, two widely differing independent analyses – one that estimated the program would cost $3.6 billion; another that estimated it would cost, at most, $1.6 billion – and accusations that the whole deal is practically organized crime, with the massive contract to install the panels going to one union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

Lost in all the finger-pointing is the question of what impact Measure B would have on the solar industry, taxpayers and pollution in Los Angeles.

First, it's important to remember that Measure B is just one part of the LA Solar Energy Plan, a program by city's Department of Water and Power (LADWP) to develop 1,280 MW of solar power in Los Angeles by 2020. The plan offers an ingenious solution to the problem of energy-hogging air conditioners being needed not only when the sun is at its peak but also when other energy demands are highest: Use the sun, which shines in Los Angeles 276 days a year, to power the city and keep it cool. As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa explains:

"The sun's power and our climate make solar power Los Angeles' most abundant natural resource."

The LA Solar Energy Plan anticipates tapping that resource at three levels, focusing on consumer solar projects, with feed-in tariffs, financing and distributed generation to sell power to the grid; a large-scale solar plan, likely with large solar power facilities in the desert; and utility-owned solar programs, which Measure B addresses.

Measure B alone is ambitious. It would create 400 MW of power by 2014 by placing solar installations on city properties and on city-owned airports, and by offering incentives for commercial, industrial and institutional customers to have solar installations put on their property in exchange for incentives.

It would almost double the U.S. solar capacity in 2007, power approximately 250,000 homes, and prevent about 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted in Los Angeles. But these savings would still be dwarfed by the county's annual 90 million-ton CO2 footprint.

Some groups support the overall LA Solar Energy Plan, but oppose Measure B specifically.

Adam Browning, Executive Director of the Vote Solar Initiative, a non-profit organization that promotes solar energy, worries that it will handicap the private solar market.

He wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that the project had a lot of upside in terms of economies of scale, but that it also had a potential for utilities to use their market power, access to customers and monopolies over transmission lines to crowd out other solar players and ultimately limit the city's solar production. Noting LADWP's reputation as the dirtiest utility in the nation, due to its reliance on coal, he added:

"They have not earned enough credibility to obviate the worry that there could be problems associated with them being the sole supplier for solar in the LA DWP territory. You need a check, and the check is to supplement and nurture and grow a local solar industry."

However, a number of other environmental and health groups have backed the measure, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the League of Conservation Voters, the Coalition for Clean Air and the American Lung Association.

David Allgood, the Southern California Director of the California League of Conservation Voters, says that the measure will have several positive impacts, including moving the city of Los Angeles's DWP closer to its Renewable Portfolio Standards goals. In 2002, the state legislature mandated that electric companies obtain 20% of their energy from renewable resources such as solar and wind by 2010. As Allgood explained: 

"We will benefit from not generating 400,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions, it will not add to the air pollution load.

"The other benefits will be to lower the production costs of photovoltaics; it will put people to work in LA in excellent paying jobs, and it will increase the number of permanent jobs in LA, because of the incentives for manufacturers to set up and receive benefits and credits for manufacturing in the City of Los Angeles."

An added environmental benefit comes from solar power's availability at times of peak demand, rendering unnecessary the expensive "peaker plants," which are fired up only when power use nears capacity.

The big question for many voters will likely be cost. The impact on ratepayers is unclear, partially due to the conflicting independent analyses, but also because predicting the savings or added costs depends on knowing the future prices of coal, natural gas and other energy sources.

How much they will cost in the future is an even bigger mystery than whether Measure B will pass on Tuesday.

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