Publicly owned utilities, free of shareholder pressures, should be active developers of renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power and landfill gas. It's good public policy to reduce reliance on shrinking natural gas supplies, which are susceptible to shortages and dramatic price swings. But municipal power generators lag woefully behind the investor-owned firms such as Southern California Edison, which knows that green power is good business. Public power needs to do better.
California's city-run power companies last year lobbied hard for, and got, an exemption from a new state law requiring private power generators to increase their renewable sources to 20% of total output by 2017.
Los Angeles' Department of Water and Power, by far the state's largest municipal utility, gets only 2.4% of its output from renewable sources; a planned wind project would increase that to 3.7%. Statewide, the figure is about 12%.
DWP officials claim it would cost $100 million a year to get to the 20% and probably require a rate increase. However, a study released Tuesday says finds that the cost would be far less and that the goal can be reached without raising rates. The study, paid for by environmental organizations, concluded that use of renewable sources would give the city better energy reliability and price stability.
This is not a new issue. In 1999, the DWP -- amid much self-congratulation -- launched a program called Green Power for a Green L.A. to get customers to pay an additional $3 a month to finance the development of renewable resources. The department boasted that the program would make Los Angeles "a greener, more beautiful city."
But renewable power usage increased less than 1% in four years. The department spent three times more marketing the program than it did on buying green power.
The public utilities argued in the Legislature last year that, unlike the private utilities, they are not subject to regulation by the state Public Utilities Commission. They said they should be responsible only to their elected city councils, which have full authority to enact conservation programs.
The problem is that their overseers, who profit from utility income, have not done so. Los Angeles' Board of Water and Power Commissioners, the mayor and the City Council should take this report seriously and finally launch the DWP on a responsible and effective "green power" program.