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L.A. City Council Makes Solar Look Bad

Solar-energy groups and small businesses are simmering over a deal cut by City Council President Eric Garcetti, City Council member Jan Perry and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to place on the March ballot a vast new alternate-energy plan that virtually excludes small businesses and private solar companies from City Hall’s push to go solar.

The March 3 measure, being peddled as the Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles Act, would add a huge 400 megawatts of solar power to buildings throughout Los Angeles, amounting to roughly 1,500 acres of the glass panels.

But critics are many, including those who say it will cost up to $3 billion in the form of higher utility bills for Angelenos, with some of the cost driven by fine print dreamed up by a City Hall employee’s union that wants all the solar-installation contracts for itself.

Amidst flying political fur, the measure was approved Friday by the City Council. It has created a new chasm between environmental groups on one side, and Garcetti, Villaraigosa and their city-government union backers on the other.

The normally dull Los Angeles Times editorial page slammed the plan as containing the “scent of swindle” and beseeched the Garcetti-led council to “sober up,” noting that seven council members who backed the act are hoping for 2009 campaign help from the very city union that would benefit from it.

But Anthony Rubenstein of Californians for Clean Energy, which led the successful fight against Proposition 10, oil man T. Boone Pickens’ failed “big wind” initiative, had a much more nuanced series of concerns.

He called it a “staggering” undertaking so vast it could distort the already distorted global price of solar panels, yet he also said, “I wish them the best, but only if we are prepared for real oversight. [DWP chief] David Nahai has huge testicles, to bite this off. He didn’t have to stick his neck on the line. Let’s admire that. But if this is a boondoggle, he will have to answer for it — because the L.A. City Council has chosen to punt this onto the voters. And to punt this onto voters is an invitation for disaster.”

The March 3 ballot measure is creating an early storm of controversy, in part because it was taken out of the hands of the DWP’s own commission, which has a far better grasp of the pitfalls facing major solar-panel projects than does the City Council. It’s no secret that the plan was written by a labor ally of the Department of Water and Power’s 8,000-employee group, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a big giver to the City Council’s own campaign chests.

A private poll in June by the political research firm Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates showed that, on first reading and without much detail given, the measure was widely favored. But the June poll left out many key issues, including the cost to Angelenos.

The 15-member L.A. City Council faced a November legal deadline to approve any measure for the March 3 ballot. As the council hurried to approve it, the estimated cost to 4 million residents became Exhibit A.

“Here is a city that is bankrupt,” says former Los Angeles Daily News editor Ron Kaye, now an outspoken blogger, who acts as watchdog of L.A. government. “We have a $110 million [City Hall] deficit that is soaring and a $400 million shortfall in the budget — now they are creating hundreds of DWP jobs at inflated wages?”

The measure calls for increasing the DWP’s solar-power output to 400 megawatts by 2014. That represents 3 percent of the current power overseen by the DWP, most of which comes from distant coal-fired power plants.

But Kaye voiced publicly what some angry environmental groups are saying privately: The City Council and mayor are more concerned about pleasing a union than in honestly discussing the major manufacturing, site location, administrative and financing pitfalls that could blow up in the DWP’s face.

The virtually exclusive work for city employees — in a region with a growing private solar-energy industry — is especially rankling to some critics. “A key element is that all work must be performed by DWP employees,” notes Jack Humphreville, an outspoken member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, who also sits on a special citizen’s commission that alerts Angelenos to utility-price increases. Humphreville points out that DWP employee-wage costs are 50 percent higher than in private industry, in part because DWP workers can retire and enjoy pensions while still in their prime.

One fact is known among the emerging disputes: If the $1.5 billion to $3 billion program is paid for through DWP rate hikes, as is likely, those hikes will be added onto utility bills that by 2010 will already be raised 24 percent higher than their 2006 levels.

— Daniel Heimpel also contributed to this story.


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