By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
If there has ever been an uncontroversial moment in the history of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, this isn’t it. Facing a shaky future of drought and climate change, the utility at the heart of L.?A.’s very existence urgently needs to divest itself of its dirty, out-of-state, coal-fired power interests while at the same time serving an ever-growing population. It needs to scare up $200 million to upgrade deteriorating lines and wires while living up to its promise to make 20 percent of its energy green by 2010. And it needs to find more water. Traditional sources, from the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta to the Owens River Valley — both dependent on a capricious Sierra snowpack — may not sustain the city through the decade.
In October, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa appointed H. David Nahai to replace Ron Deaton as the DWP’s general manager; earlier this month, the Los Angeles City Council confirmed the appointment after a hearing that Council Member Bill Rosendahl described as a “love fest.” Nahai has not enjoyed a love fest with the local media, however. Though he has served 10 years on the Los Angeles Regional Water Board and three years on the DWP’s board of commissioners, and has also served on the Santa Monica Bay Commission, he has never run a business larger than his own 15-person law firm. Some doubt he can manage the department’s nearly 9,000 employees and their powerful union, let alone root out the endemic corruption that has plagued the department through its history.
On a December afternoon on the 15th floor of the DWP’s Hope Street headquarters in the John Ferraro Building (JFB), the view is spectacular: a sky freshly scrubbed by a winter storm, new snow in the mountains, even a little glimpse of the sea 15 miles to the southwest. Speaking plainly, in neatly articulated, British-inflected phrases, the typically phlegmatic lawyer allows just a little enthusiasm to sneak into his voice as he details his plans for the agency.
“I wouldn’t have given up a highly lucrative business and all my other involvements if I didn’t think I could do it,” he tells the critics. “I know there is history to be made right here.”
L.A. WEEKLY:Three years ago, when the mayor appointed you to the DWP’s board of commissioners, the department had a goal of getting 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2017. Later, the mayor asked that the goal be moved up by seven years. How likely does it seem that you’ll achieve that?
NAHAI: The 20-percent-by-2010 renewable mandate doesn’t look any different to me sitting on this side of the desk than it did when I was president of the commission or vice president of the commission. The challenges are the same, and the promise of getting there is also the same. Even as commission president, I set about making that a priority of the department. I used to hold meetings here every Friday morning at 8 o’clock on a weekly basis in order to find out what the previous week’s progress had been toward meeting that goal. Now I have a whole RPS [Renewable Portfolio Standard] team dedicated to reaching that objective. Since I’ve become G.M., I’ve expanded the team to be more cross-disciplinary, to take in purchasing, environmental and regulatory affairs, as well as the generation, transmission, distribution personnel, in order to make sure we get there. Los Angeles is wonderfully positioned to have access to three principal renewable sources: wind in the Tehachapis, solar in the Mojave, geothermal in the Salton Sea.
Transmission has been a big issue: Getting geothermal from the Salton Sea and power from wind farms in the Tehachapis, such as the new Pine Tree facility, is going to require building new transmission corridors. Some of those transmission lines might encroach on open space and protected habitat. It’s an odd problem from an environmentalist’s perspective: Everybody wants green power, but nobody wants the huge power lines necessary to bring it in from the desert.
LADWP is in a very fortunate position from two points of view. First, we already have an extensive transmission network. We own 20 percent of the transmission in the state. So for [the] 20-percent-by-2010 [mandate] we have adequate transmission. The Inyo-Rinaldi line, which runs all the way from Inyo down by the Tehachapis, will need what we call “phase zero” upgrades in order to accommodate the wind power that will come down that line, as well as one or maybe two large solar projects in the Mojave. But those upgrades are very minimal.
But for 35 percent by 2020 — which is our next milestone — that necessitates accessing the geothermal in the Salton Sea, for which we don’t have adequate transmission, and for which the Green Path [transmission corridor] has to be built. This is where some major transmission challenges come into the picture. Also, the entire area of the Tehachapis is a very significant wind resource. And the current transmission will not be sufficient to accommodate all the power that we would want to bring down from there. An additional line will have to be built. We are right at the beginning stages of that. What the configuration will be, how it will run — it’s just not clear right now.
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