Mayor unveils ambitious solar plan

Zahniser and Willon are Times staff writers.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled an ambitious long-range plan Monday for securing enough solar power to meet one-tenth of the city’s energy needs by 2020, a move aimed at making L.A. a hub of the solar-energy industry.

Appearing at a South Los Angeles manufacturing plant where solar panels are made, Villaraigosa said the initiative will help the Department of Water and Power wean itself off of fossil fuels -- natural gas and coal -- as part of the effort to address global warming.

The plan calls for enough solar panels to produce 1,280 megawatts of power, a goal that would be reached through a combination of private and public generating facilities and the installation of solar panels on homes.

“Nobody’s contemplated that many megawatts for one city,” said Rhonda Mills, Southern California director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies and a solar power advocate.

The announcement Monday is the latest in a series of renewable energy initiatives touted by the mayor in recent weeks, including using redevelopment funds to lure “clean” technology companies and investing city pension dollars in environmentally friendly companies.


Shifting Los Angeles to cleaner fuels could buttress both Villaraigosa’s run for reelection and any future run for governor. If he runs in 2010, Villaraigosa would likely face state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, an avid environmentalist.

“L.A. has everything it takes to make this [solar plan] work,” said Villaraigosa, standing alongside environmentalists, union leaders and City Council members. “We have the sun in abundancy. We have the space. We have the largest municipal utility in the country.”

Still, one DWP watchdog questioned the financial underpinnings of the plan

“There is one huge assumption here -- that they’ll get these huge tax credits, volume discounts and economies of scale,” said Jack Humphreville, a neighborhood council member who has been pressing the DWP to appoint a ratepayer advocate. “I have serious questions about whether that is pie-in-the-sky or not.”

DWP General Manager and Chief Executive H. David Nahai said his agency will spend the next 90 days developing a financial analysis of the solar plan, including its effect on ratepayers.

Under the plan, the largest share of solar power, 500 megawatts, would come from generating facilities built by private-sector companies in the Mojave Desert.

An additional 380 megawatts would be achieved through smaller programs, including one that would help low-income residents add solar panels to their homes and another that would allow DWP customers to purchase shares of city-owned solar plants.

Voters will decide on another part of the mayor’s solar plan on March 3, at the same time that Villaraigosa seeks a second and final four-year term. That ballot measure would allow the DWP to install and own 400 megawatts of rooftop solar panels by 2014. Villaraigosa and the council have been criticized in recent weeks over that proposal, which was conceived by an organization with strong ties to the union that represents DWP employees.

Business leaders contend that the ballot measure was written by and for DWP employee unions and would lock out companies that specialize in rooftop solar panels.

Gary Toebben, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said he is encouraged to see the mayor place a greater emphasis on private-sector solar initiatives. But he said there are unanswered questions about the solar ballot measure’s effect on electrical rates.

“We still have a concern that the cost of the ballot initiative has not been laid out,” he said.

Villaraigosa said the solar plan could lead to higher rates as soon as 2011. But City Council President Eric Garcetti noted that coal, one of the DWP’s cheapest -- and most polluting -- energy sources, will also become more expensive as Congress moves to impose a carbon tax.

“Coal is not going to be the same price that it is today,” he said.