Former DWP General Manager David Freeman has a glimmering dream for the city of Los Angeles. “When you fly into L.A., all you will see is solar panels,” Freeman says in the Southern drawl he carried all the way from his job running the Tennessee Valley Authority utility giant, to Los Angeles.
Freeman has run the country’s biggest power districts, including the New York Power Authority and the Lower Colorado River Authority. He thinks that the widely criticized upcoming March ballot measure to launch a solar megaproject on the city’s rooftops, can work.
But Freeman, now retired from the utility business and serving on the Los Angeles Harbor Commission, also acknowledges that powerful factions in City Hall, including a union representing DWP workers, which holds sway over the L.A. City Council, have fed a strong negative reaction to the project.
In November, the City Council unanimously — and hurriedly — passed a resolution adding Measure B to the March 3 ballot. The vaguely outlined idea proposes to undertake the most ambitious solar-energy initiative in the country, draping 1,500 acres of DWP-installed solar panels across roofs and parking lots.
But the unusual speed of the decision, apparent lack of transparency, huge costs to Los Angeles residents and virtual absence of serious public debate drew instant criticism from local media, City Controller Laura Chick and concerned citizens.
A December article by Los Angeles Times writer David Zahniser clearly showed that Council President Eric Garcetti had disregarded the secret findings of a consultancy firm on the city payroll that the plan would cost far more than the $1.5 billion the Council had suggested, and was fraught with risk to Los Angeles taxpayers.
“It’s not like me to criticize the bureaucracy,” Freeman says. “But it’s no secret that the L.A. local government is perfectly capable of screwing up a two-car funeral.”
More than just screwing up, critics saw the hasty project from nowhere as something more sinister. On Larry Mantle’s “Air Talk” radio show aired December 23, City Controller Chick bristled at the extremely unusual speed with which the multibillion-dollar plan was placed before voters — by a City Council famous for spending long afternoons discussing the perils of fast food. “When you’re cutting deals and you don’t want to discuss details in public. that’s not in the best interest of the public,” Chick complained.
City Hall observers and Los Angeles activists demanded to know who stood to gain the most from an unusually rushed decision to put it on the ballot. Many critics began pointing to a politically connected union that employs about 8,000 Department of Water and Power workers — and that openly brags about its aggressiveness in getting its way inside City Hall.
“Nothing is done [by management] at the DWP without the union’s direct participation and approval,” alleges Joel Davidson, a solar-power consultant for 30 years. The union is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), whose motto is, “If provoked, we will strike.”
Measure B calls for DWP to install, and own, the solar panels that will cover Los Angeles roofs. Davidson, who worked on DWP solar plans with Freeman in the late ’90s, says DWP has “aggressively pursued the solar market because they are concerned about losing it to the private sector.”
The DWP is a political power in its own right because its profits — earned from Los Angeles residents and businesses — pump nearly $175 million dollars into the city’s general fund. That’s a strong political force weighing on the City Council, which always wants more money.
Measure B spokeswoman Sarah Leonard dismisses criticism of the DWP and its powerful IBEW union as a monopoly that pushes around the City Council. But dozens of private solar-panel installers in the burgeoning solar industry will be all but cut out of the bonanza in installation work under Measure B — leading critics to fear that the hurried nature of this deal was custom-designed to bolster the size and political power of IBEW.
DWP critic Jack Humphreville and a handful of other activists wrote the “con” argument for the March ballot, asserting that the project is a ruse having little to do with smart energy policy, and everything to do with growing the size and power of the union and DWP.
The IBEW fired back against such activists, bringing together a Who’s Who of labor, political and environmental honchos who formally asked the courts to throw out the “con” ballot argument. Last week, a judge denied the effort to squelch the con argument — a defeat for Mitchell Schwartz, who filed the petition to toss it out. Schwartz was Barack Obama’s California campaign director and is president of the California League of Conservation Voters.
Schwartz spun the numerous attacks on Measure B as an attack on unions, telling L.A. Weekly, “Union jobs are great.”
No matter which side wins in March, Los Angeles City Hall, which has struggled for the past four years to achieve discernible results on a wide array of issues and programs, is already far behind in implementing a solar-energy plan.
Freeman pushed the utility to move into solar energy back when President Clinton called for 1 million solar panels to be installed nationwide. Los Angeles eagerly planned for 100,000 panels operating by 2010. But the city program self-destructed. Davidson, who helped to install those government-subsidized panels on rooftops, says an embarrassing 18 installations were completed.
Davidson says DWP knows how to reliably provide traditional energy at less cost than many California utilities, but when it comes to solar power, there’s always been “more rhetoric than action in terms of photovoltaics.”
Private-sector solar power has meanwhile sped along, but Measure B “will wipe out most commercial business for the installers with the experience,” says Greg Johanson, owner of Solar Electrical Systems in Westlake Village. “It would be great for the union but knock out 200 to 300 jobs a year.”
Johanson wants private shops like his to get a fair shot at the work, and he suggests a program in which IBEW journeymen oversee his nonunion installation teams — who make far less than city workers do setting up solar panels. “We are using guys at $15 an hour that are outpacing union guys, 5-to-1, who are getting paid $32.50,” Johanson claims.
Some smaller cities are far ahead of Los Angeles on solar power, but they didn’t get there via megaprojects. Solar leader Sacramento’s Municipal Utilities District (SMUD) produces 11 megawatts of solar power and plans to add 125 megawatts in the next 10 years. Los Angeles is biting off 400 megawatts at once.
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Among many other looming problems, Los Angeles’ still-vague plan would keep DWP as owner of the installed panels, but that “creates too many problems owning product on someone else’s roofs,” says SMUD Renewables Director Michael DeAngelis.
The 15 council members have never actually seen an implementation plan. And says Julie Wong, spokeswoman for Garcetti, the council won’t see such a plan until late January — five short weeks before voters are expected to understand it all, and decide.
If it can be made to work, Los Angeles might benefit, DeAngelis says. “Think about it. It’s not just air emissions from burning coal or oil it is also the effect on land and habitat. If the units are on rooftops, you don’t have either.”
At some point, L.A. will start using the sunshine that it’s famous for. The question is whether this City Hall, this mayor and this DWP are up for the challenges.