Last year, when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power kicked off a new program to buy electricity from local solar installations, city leaders along with environmentalists and business groups said it would be the nation’s largest urban rooftop solar program and would allow hundreds of building owners to create sun-fueled power plants on their roofs or over parking lots.
But now it turns out that developers also want to use the Feed-in Tariff program to put panels on undeveloped agricultural and residential land, much to the surprise and concern of neighbors. Residents in the semirural neighborhood of Lake View Terrace have been fighting a proposal to sandwich 3,500 solar cells between houses and horse stables, which would produce enough electricity to power 200 homes a year. Some 19 solar “farms” are proposed for open land in the northeast San Fernando Valley alone, and city officials have told residents that state law allows the panels to be installed anywhere, without land-use permits or conditions, as long as there is no risk to health or public safety. That means residents have no ability to challenge or seek conditions on solar farms in their communities.
City officials point to the 1978 Solar Rights Act, which was designed to encourage the use of solar power and prevent cities from enacting “unreasonable barriers” to installations. But the author of that law, then-Assemblyman Mel Levine, who now heads the DWP’s Board of Water and Power Commissioners, said the act was intended to make it easier for homeowners to put solar panels on their houses, not necessarily to protect solar power plants in residential areas.
Councilman Felipe Fuentes, who represents the northeast Valley, has rightly questioned whether city officials really have to rubber-stamp these projects. He’s asked the city attorney and the chief legislative analyst to take another look at the Solar Rights Act and recommend amendments that will give the city more authority over permitting solar farms. The premise of the Feed-in Tariff is still a good one: Los Angeles should generate more electricity from its abundant sunshine, and solar will play an increasingly important role as the DWP reduces its reliance on fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy. But this program was sold as an effort to put solar on rooftops, not on vacant lots in residential neighborhoods. Communities should have a voice in deciding where — and how large — ground-level solar projects operate in L.A.