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Opinion

Editorial: L.A. can run on cheap, green solar power — but only if Eric Garcetti stands up for it

An aerial view of a solar power facility in Kern County
The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power would pay less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour for power generated at the Eland solar farm, under a 25-year contract. Above are photovoltaic cells in western Kern County.
(Los Angeles Times photo)

The proposed Eland solar project in the Mojave Desert has the potential to play an important role in Los Angeles’ clean energy future, offering the city roughly the same amount of power as a modest-sized fossil-fuel-powered plant. And it would be more affordable power too: The deal struck by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Eland developer 8minute Solar Energy would deliver power at less than 2 cents per kilowatt hour, the cheapest rate of any solar farm in the U.S. and less than the cost of power from natural-gas-fueled plants. It would include storage for an extra fee, helping the city take advantage of the sun’s rays hours after sunset.

It’s a big deal for Angelenos, cutting cost and carbon emissions simultaneously. It would help the state with its ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals too. And who would get the credit for all this environmental wonderfulness? That would be Mayor Eric Garcetti and his Green New Deal initiative, which calls for the city to obtain 55% of its power from renewable sources by 2025.

The Garcetti connection could have something to do with the last-minute wrench tossed into the works by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, which represents the city’s electrical workers. The DWP’s board of commissioners was set to approve the contract with 8minute on Tuesday, sending it to the City Council, but two of the four commissioners present didn’t vote for it. One of them cited potential “problems with labor.” But the deal includes labor protections, so what’s the problem?

For its part, the IBEW emailed the Los Angeles Times a statement asserting that the DWP “has not complied with its contractual obligations for this deal.” But the city is under no obligations to get the union’s approval for projects like these, and the union has no role in approving the contract. What it does have is animus for the mayor and an open disdain for his sustainability plan for Los Angeles.

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Under Brian D’Arcy’s leadership, the DWP workers’ union has never been a fan of Garcetti, supporting his opponent when he first ran for the mayor’s office. But after Garcetti led the move earlier this year to phase out three DWP-operated natural-gas-fired plants over the next 10 years (a good move, by the way), things got nasty. The union went ballistic, launching a public relations attack on the mayor’s green initiative across a variety of media and online outlets, saying it was just a sop to environmentalists and would eliminate jobs, increase gas prices and raise electricity rates.

It’s too bad that the city’s electrical workers have taken such a short-sighted approach to the city’s switch to renewable energy. Reducing reliance on fossil fuel isn’t a ideological position, it’s an existential challenge; after all, climate change endangers the future of DWP employees and ratepayers alike.

The IBEW’s opposition to Eland might be nothing more than political payback, but the union isn’t confining its fight against Garcetti’s initiative to DWP contracts. It also played a role in the recent special election for the City Council seat in the northwest San Fernando Valley.

The IBEW’s political action committee backed the Republican candidate, John Lee, dropping $290,000 into the effort. The campaign included dishonest mailers that portrayed his opponent, scientist and environmental activist Loraine Lundquist, as a socialist with an “extremist agenda.” The fact that Lee ultimately won with the help of the IBEW was surely not lost on any of the city’s elected officials.

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Garcetti has taken the high road so far, and his office insists that a compromise can be worked out. But this is getting ridiculous. He appears to be allowing this political bully to push him and his appointed commissioners around. This project needs to start construction by December to qualify for the 30% federal tax credits that are helping keep costs down; otherwise, the credits will drop to 26% next year.

The union might have tremendous political influence but has no actual power to stop the city’s transition to renewable energy. And if it continues to block the project with baseless complaints, then Garcetti must stand up for the interests of the entire city — in fact, the entire state.


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