DIVIDED OVER WAR, THE ECONOMY and other trenchant issues, the top three presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and Barack Obama, have all been giving lip service to going green, and that could presage a major swing in Washington next year, toward a crackdown on tailpipe emissions and maybe even toward dismantling stubborn barriers to solar and other alternative energy.
All three candidates — two Democrats, one Republican — are lining up behind California in challenging federal law in an effort to crack down on cars spewing carbon dioxide. All three have also touted a new push for solar, with Republican McCain — hailing from an even more sun-drenched state than California — recently hitting a tour of a Southern California solar-panel factory.
Although global warming and the environment have been dramatically overshadowed by voters' economic worries, the three leaders are plainly trying to top one another, with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama first signing on as co-sponsors of Senator Barbara Boxer's bill that would give California a clear right to override federal law and impose tight new state-based limits on the notorious greenhouse gas. And McCain (as well as the other leading Republican contenders), questioned before the Super Tuesday primary, promptly took California's side in its legal fight against the Bush administration and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which has authority over carbon dioxide standards — and which has told California to back off.
The bipartisan solidarity — whether election-season spin or not — is seen as a slap upside the head of lame-duck Bush and a sign that, regardless of who wins the presidency, California eventually could prevail in its legal fight against Washington to slash smog emissions from cars, SUVs and pickup trucks.
Such a breakthrough would represent a rare, clear-cut leap forward for California's painfully slow green movement, bogged down by economic barriers to technologies like solar power, federal resistance to upstart state laws like the emissions crackdown, and highly localized red tape that has "green" cities like Los Angeles and Santa Monica barely muddling along on alternative energy and other promising trends.
In a state that claims to lead the push for clean air and renewable resources (a largely unprovable claim made by many states), the California green movement is still a story of roadblocks, mislaid intentions and mucked-up plans.
"The clock is ticking, that's what is so frustrating about all this," says former Assemblywoman Fran Pavley, who introduced California's tailpipe-emissions law — the one California and the EPA are warring over — back in 2001. Despite the fact that Sacramento's 120-person Legislature is controlled by a sizable majority of liberal Democrats who claim to embrace Pavley's views, they carried water for the auto industry for years by opposing Pavley — mirroring self-described green Democrats in Washington who strenuously resisted tougher gas-mileage standards for Detroit.
It took Pavley three years to persuade her fellow legislators to adopt the regulations eventually signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, then three more years elapsed before the EPA in December responded as expected: "No way — this is federal turf." So the state filed suit against the feds, arguing that it does have jurisdiction over tailpipe emissions — a complex legal battle, now in federal court.
"Here we go, another year's delay," Pavley says. The polite, soft-spoken suburbanite legislator from Agoura Hills — who has a rare reputation in Sacramento for avoiding partisan histrionics — says the green effort is just not moving "as fast as we would like."
Even ideas that aren't controversial, like installing solar panels, are often balled up in bureaucratic red tape and steep initial costs that tax breaks and other incentives simply don't cover.
One new solar array in Los Angeles, unveiled to considerable fanfare two months ago, sits atop the roof of a warehouse in almost-always sunny Van Nuys. At about half the size of a football field, the $750,000 configuration of metallic blue panels is one of the largest private commitments to solar power in L.A. — which says something about what people are really willing to put their money into, in a city jammed with $2 million homes and $200,000 landscaping jobs. Owner Ady Gil, 49, says he decided to plunk down the $750,000 because "too many people talk and do nothing" about renewable energy. When conditions are perfect — when the hot Valley sun is glaring down — the array should generate enough wattage to power 30 homes.
Unfortunately, after the project was finished, it wasn't the winter rains and clouds that rendered it useless and unable to illuminate a single light bulb. Only this month, after nearly two months of delay, was Gil given the go-ahead by Los Angeles city inspectors to turn on the behemoth collection of solar panels.
"Los Angeles has streamlined its permit processing very well," says William Korthof, CEO of Energy Efficiency Solar, which installed the system. But the pencil pushers in the Villaraigosa administration managed to leave out a key step: "Hooking up to the grid has not been streamlined." At first, Korthof says, the Department of Water and Power told him it had a 14-week backlog preventing city inspectors from doing a final check of the project's circuitry, but eventually got around to it after seven weeks - lightning speed, apparently, for City Hall.
Having installed solar projects since 1989, Korthof is amazed by how difficult some agencies make it to install what he considers to be an "off the shelf" product. The DWP's rigid procedures, which cause some would-be users of solar to give up and keep sucking juice off the grid, stand in sharp contrast to what Southern California Edison does, Korthof says. Edison relies entirely on normal city permit inspections, making it possible to get a system running in a couple of weeks.
On top of what the utilities require, every city has its own regulations. Some that tout their green attitudes endlessly, like Santa Monica and Long Beach, actually regulate up the kazoo. Santa Monica paints itself as neon green: One of its newest laws, for instance, forbids the use of nonbiodegradable cups and containers — imposing fines on restaurants that might stuff pizza leftovers in a Styrofoam box. The city is also one of the first to ban smoking not just inside restaurants, but also outdoors on patios, as well as near commercial buildings and on beaches.
"When people smoke, they throw their butts out, and a lot of those butts reach the ocean and hurt the birds and fish," says Mayor Herb Katz. "The people of Santa Monica understand that."
A HAVEN FOR HIGH-MINDED control freaks, Santa Monica has strict codes that turn solar installations into something of a nightmare, as Korthof describes it. On one project, on the roof of a cafe, city planners ordered him not to let any panels be visible — to the easily offended Westside public.
The only spot on the roof that was invisible to passersby was "basically, in a place where they would be in the shade," Korthof says. The result was a small array that supplies only a fraction of the cafe's needs. The city does issue permits for free, and at least does not require a full City Council vote to collect energy from free sunlight, but it remains "one of the more difficult places to get a permit," Korthof says. "It involves multiple trips to the city to submit plans, to have them reviewed, and make sure you conform to all their requirements."
Mayor Katz, an architect, essentially agrees that his town is just one damn difficult place to get anything done. "Some structural engineers will not work in Santa Monica, because it's tough," Katz says. "It's just the bureaucracy it takes to obey the law."
The basic economics — the daunting cost of installing solar systems — has prompted federal and state governments to offer tax credits and rebates, but tax credits were cut in the new White House energy bill, and the paperwork now required to claim California rebates presents something of a conundrum to the sustainable crowd: It requires applicants to fill out close to 200 pages for a single application, Korthof says.
"I think the Legislature kind of screwed up the program," he says.
Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys), a.k.a. "Lightbulb Lloyd," a zealous champion of compact fluorescent light bulbs, who also chairs the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee, disagrees that he or his colleagues in Sacramento screwed things up. He insists that the massive red tape is meant to ensure that government help doesn't go "to your next-door neighbor for solar panels that are going to stay in his garage."
Clearly, consumers want the help. The state received as many applications for new solar systems in 2006 as it got in the previous 26 years combined — and 2007 was a banner year, too.
But even when government isn't making things nearly impossible, there are much bigger problems in trying to exploit renewable energy, many of them related to developing alternative-power plants.
Visionaries see gargantuan solar arrays in the desert, geothermal plants at conducive sites at the Salton Sea and elsewhere, and big wind turbines in blustery mountain passes. But so far, neither Washington nor Sacramento has come up with a brilliant plan for wiring that hardware to the existing energy grid.
Another obstacle is the fact that technologies that appear green often have their own environmental drawbacks — some of which are poorly understood or misconstrued by the media. Whoever becomes president will walk into a full-scale war over how those drawbacks affect the auto industry and another group: the powerful corn lobby.
Cars running on ethanol sounded great initially, but critics now point out that America's modest ethanol production consumes a significant share of the corn crop — which, of course, requires prodigious amounts of water. Nitrogen in the fertilizers used to grow corn also worries some scientists, who suspect that damaging amounts could end up in the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. Even some erstwhile supporters have been backing off ethanol in support of electric vehicles that store power in batteries.
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But the push for battery-powered cars is almost certain to hand Clinton, McCain or Obama another massive dilemma — the environmental cost of mining lithium, nickel, cadmium and other metals for the huge batteries.
At Ady Gil's property in Van Nuys, Gil stands outside, his shirttail untucked, his hair in a ponytail, elaborating on his plans to take solar to the next level — with a solar carport so employees can drive electric cars and plug them in while they work. Gil owns a Ford Ranger electric vehicle and a tiny Zenn electric car — about 10 feet long — signed by Beau Bridges, Flea and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
"I can charge it with the solar panel and drive for free," he boasts.
It's just that, at least for the immediate future, there's nothing free about it.