Los Angeles' Bungled Solar Plan
Despite its sunny title, the “Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles Solar Initiative” is dogged by the fact that the plan to generate 400 megawatts from acres of glistening photo-voltaic panels creates city-government jobs while cutting the area’s hungry private solar firms out of a six-year bonanza.
Measure B landed on the March ballot after less public input than any billion-dollar government scheme in Southern California in recent memory. Criticism has grown intense even as a slick campaign embraced by many leading politicians to win over voters gets under way.
On February 5, City Controller Laura Chick, an often tough-minded fiscal watchdog, publicly broke with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to oppose Measure B, which she sees as a confusing, nontransparent, potentially greatly expensive, hurriedly-cobbled-together plan.
“It stinks,” Chick told L.A. Weekly. “The whole way this ended up on the ballot is wrong. It’s wrong not to have a thoughtful debate over the potential cost impacts.”
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Chick says Villaraigosa and the City Council put the measure on the ballot despite knowing that a major evaluation of the troubled Department of Water and Power was in the works. That fresh audit questions its cost estimates — as well as the DWP’s ability to handle such long-term planning and analysis.
Chick, whose profile has risen even as her ally Villaraigosa’s has suffered, says, “No one has given a good explanation what we’re voting on, and why we have to vote on it now.”
It could cost $1 billion to $3.6 billion — nobody knows because Villaraigosa and City Council President Eric Garcetti rushed it so quickly onto the ballot. With about two weeks until the election, City Hall is awash in rumors that Measure B isn’t about bringing solar to L.A. — but was meant to provide Villaraigosa a flashy issue in case he faced a wealthy mayoral challenger, such as the developer of the Grove, Rick Caruso.
Sources at City Hall and DWP tell the Weekly that Villaraigosa was determined to place a nationally prominent issue on this ballot to keep his own political ambitions in the spotlight and ensure labor peace with a powerful union whose ranks will grow under Measure B.
Villaraigosa needn’t have worried. Caruso announced on November 7 he isn’t running for mayor — the same day Measure B sailed through the City Council and onto the March 3 ballot, with virtually no planning behind it.
Measure B proponents insist there’s nothing like L.A.’s solar plan — and that’s true.
Other investor-owned and public utilities are pursuing ambitious solar programs. But in sharp contrast to City Hall’s idea, they are keeping a close eye on the superstressed economy — opting to hire flexible contract workers to install solar panels so that crews can be cut as needed, and not swelling government payrolls.
In L.A., that’s not to be. Although Villaraigosa clearly supports large-scale solar, Measure B is the brainchild of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 business manager Brian D’Arcy. He was assured that IBEW, representing most of the DWP’s 8,500 employees, would get the bulk, if not all, of the solar-installation work. Mostly unknown outside City Hall, the IBEW is feared by officials like Villaraigosa. The union can quickly jam City Council chambers with members wearing matching union T-shirts and threatening to strike. But its demands aren’t always a good idea. IBEW used bullying tactics a few years ago to ram through DWP an ill-conceived, $1.87 million unsecured city loan to a Hawaiian company to develop electric scooters and rechargeable-battery stations. The high-tech experiment flopped.
In 2005, shortly after Villaraigosa was elected — with IBEW help — the mayor handed D’Arcy and his union a five-year contract that guaranteed 16.8 percent in wage hikes, including a nearly unheard-of inflationary clause of up to 28 percent. Villaraigosa’s decision soon prompted other unions to demand the same.
By hurrying it onto the ballot, Villaraigosa avoided a rough road with D’Arcy, whose union historically has impeded green projects but who now sees the advantage to growing his union membership via solar projects.
“There’s a real short-term political benefit for the mayor, too,” the source says of the well-financed Measure B campaign. “In the short run, he gets face time before the cameras.”
Garcetti introduced the solar motion to the City Council on October 15, and Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller reported on October 22 that it could be implemented, without voter approval. But City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo issued a November 4 opinion stating that only voters could approve the sweeping plan.
That’s because Measure B contains a power grab that requires a change to the city’s constitution, known as the City Charter. In its fine print, Measure B shifts significant oversight power away from the Department of Water and Power Commission and gives that power to the City Council, whose members have almost no educational or professional background in energy or technology.
Criticism of the idea was immediate. The Los Angeles Times editorial board warned the City Council to “sober up.” Many newspaper editorial boards, bloggers and commentators eviscerated the lack of transparency and vague reasons for rushing the measure.
The City Council spent less time discussing the massive project than they spent on a feud over an elephant cage at L.A. Zoo, before unanimously placing Measure B on the ballot. Only later did City Council members learn of a secret report by P.A. Consulting, withheld from them by Garcetti, which called the plan “extremely risky,” questioned cost estimates of $1.6 billion and warned costs could more than double if an iffy federal tax break didn’t come through.
Villaraigosa says Measure B is “on the ballot because it’s a bold initiative, one we knew could be controversial to some.” But former DWP Commission President Nick Patsaouras, now running for City Controller to replace the termed-out Chick, said in a December court declaration that DWP chief David Nahai cut the DWP Commission out of the loop on an issue it would normally oversee. As a result, the DWP did not “hold any public hearings” before the City Council rushed through its vote.
Patsaouras says L.A. officials are now peddling the dubious claim that Measure B will create good manufacturing jobs in as-yet-unbuilt solar-panel factories. In fact, such factories would take “many, many years” to build, facing the usual hurdles to find the land and get the environmental approvals — and the Measure B project will be all but over by that time.
Jack Humphreville, a leading opponent of the solar measure, echoes Chick, saying, “The whole political process stinks.”
The Weekly found that other big utilities with far more experience and better, more open planning, including Southern California Edison, say they can encourage a healthier solar industry by hiring outside contractors than by hoarding the work in-house.
For example, Southern California Edison is asking the California Public Utilities Commission for a 250-megawatt commercial-rooftop program — using outside contractors. They’ll be union workers but not government workers. SCE doesn’t want to add 300 permanent workers, knowing it might shed workers when the project is over, or if the economy worsens.
Yet Nahai provides a glimpse into D’Arcy’s influence on L.A. leaders: Though D’Arcy is no expert on solar technology or economics, DWP bosses had to persuade him to back off on timetables, to allow newer and cheaper technologies, and even to let DWP use city-owned property like Palmdale Airport for solar.
“We have a union, which I view as a resource,” Nahai says in defense of D’Arcy’s role in directing important details L.A. residents — who will pay the bill for all this — have never heard.
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