Greening the DWP

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has a knack for being incredibly right and unbelievably wrong at exactly the same moment and on precisely the same subject. The latest case in point is his disconcerting proposal to quickly reinvent the entire mission of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and get residents to pay handsomely for it.

On one score he’s right. Moving into clean, renewable and (perhaps, one day) inexpensive power is the proper direction for Los Angeles. Angelenos are environmentalists; we drive a lot, but we support regulatory changes to clean our air, we buy a lot of hybrids, and we scoff at coal-dependent Eastern cities that promote the destruction of mountains and rivers and turn the rain to acid. But we have a dirty secret: We are coal-burners. Much of our electricity comes from coal mines and generators in Utah and Arizona that spew carbon fumes and ash, leach mercury, divert Colorado River water and often turn the once-clear air over the Grand Canyon into a brownish haze. Just as residents here generally supported restoring Mono Lake when we learned that our thirst was destroying it, we must clean up after ourselves in the Southwest. If we’re slow about it, state law will soon force our hands. Villaraigosa’s green push gets us started.

Pieces of his latest plan show some welcome improvements over the ill-conceived Measure B that voters narrowly defeated in February 2009. The carbon reduction surcharge, for example, would encourage Angelenos to make their homes and businesses more energy efficient, and other parts of the program would help them lower their power bills even as the unit cost of electricity rises. Residents and businesses with solar-paneled roofs could actually make some money selling power back to the DWP.

But in other respects, there is a familiar and disturbing whiff of deception. The plan throws in so many other objectives, spoken and unspoken -- paying for a jobs program, shoring up the DWP’s credit rating, building new plants instead of buying available green energy, keeping money flowing from the utility to City Hall -- that ratepayers won’t really know what their higher bills (with increases up to and perhaps exceeding 28%) are paying for.

Also reminiscent of Measure B is the timing: As of Tuesday, the plan remained unpublished and unavailable to the public, yet the Board of Water and Power Commissioners is expected to vote on it Thursday. Meanwhile, DWP Interim General Manager S. David Freeman said, the plan has to be in place within a matter of weeks or the agency’s credit will be at risk.

This is a bad start for a program that, according to Villaraigosa’s office, has no less a goal than shifting the DWP’s mission from providing cheap and reliable energy to providing clean and renewable energy. It’s the right goal. Left unclear is whether it’s the right plan to accomplish it.