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Los Angeles is Looking Into Clean Energy, But is it Enough?

If the city is going to meet its climate goals, we need public participation.

Youth Climate Strike March and Rally, 2019, Greta Thunberg speaking to the crowd. Credit: Jasmin Vargas.

Our cities and towns are in a constant state of emergency. The pandemic has sharpened inequalities, shut down countries, and infected the most vulnerable among us. The pandemic-induced recession continues to worsen the crisis as many are left houseless and are faced with insurmountable debt. But theirs isn’t the only unpaid debt.

This city has racked up bills from years of ignoring the climate crisis, as the increase in global temperatures leads to more severe weather, exemplified by the recent catastrophe in Texas. If we are going to get out of this crisis and envision a better future, we must pay attention to the cost of inaction.

In Los Angeles, a new study is finally coming out in March that tackles one of our biggest challenges in stopping climate change: phasing out fossil fuels altogether and creating a 100% clean energy grid by the year 2030. By themselves, the numbers sound great. But perhaps the question we should post to our public utility, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP), is “Are we doing enough?”

(Unfortunately, the answer is no, we could be doing a lot more.)

The LA 100 Study was commissioned by City Council in 2017, as a response to a massive gas blowout at Aliso Canyon — the largest gas blowout in U.S. history. LA 100 is conducted by the LADWP in partnership with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). As an advisory group member of the LA 100 Study, I participated in quarterly meetings for the last three years. While the pandemic slowed down the study’s progress, the last Advisory Group meeting is coming up in April with the goal of involving all of Los Angeles in shaping our clean energy future. After all, LADWP is the largest municipal utility in the country, and it’s run by the city- your city, you should have a say in how it gets it’s energy.

The study looks into various pathways to getting our energy grid transitioned to clean energy. The process may seem insurmountable at times, but I have seen firsthand the incredible capacity of the climate and environmental justice movements to make the impossible possible. In the last few years, CA passed SB100 setting a goal of reaching 100% renewable energy by 2045, with some caveats. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced “the beginning of the end of gas” by pledging to use billions of dollars meant to repower coastal gas plants to build local solar and storage instead. Since then, many local, state, and federal commitments have been made to electrify cars, trucks, and buses, with LA setting its bus electrification goal for 2030.

The LA 100 study has taken all these climate victories and created a comprehensive model of the city’s grid, creating four pathways to 100 percent clean energy.

Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratories, The LA 100 study’s four proposed scenarios

Unfortunately, none of the scenarios are fast enough.

Under the LA 100 Study, the proposed scenarios are: 1) SB 100, 2) Early & No Biofuels, 3) Limited Transmission, and 4) Transmission Focus. Each scenario uses moderate and high assumptions of energy efficiency and customer demand projections except for SB 100, which also assumes a third “stress” scenario. This shows what would happen if LADWP had high energy demand due to electrification but low adoption of energy efficiency measures and clean energy technologies.

None of these scenarios get us to clean energy by 2030. (The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave us until 2030 to completely change our energy systems in order to avoid catastrophic warming.) The only scenario that comes close is the Early & No Biofuels scenario.

The Early & No Biofuels scenario gets LA to 98 percent of our energy goal by 2030. However, that last two to five percent will be the most difficult to build across all scenarios. How we get to 100 percent clean energy is just as important as when.

Some scenarios allow for dirty energy.

All pathways build out vast amounts of geothermal, wind, local solar, and battery storage, but there are scenarios allowing for biofuels, as well as hydrogen and nuclear power.

While technically “renewable,” biofuels are not clean. Biogas, for example, releases greenhouse emissions and other pollutants, and digestors in the Central Valley pollute communities of color.

LADWP needs to invest more in energy efficiency, equity and union jobs.

As we move forward with LA’s clean energy transition, the LA 100 study must focus its benefits where they are needed the most and find ways to reduce customer debt in the process. The pandemic has shown that accumulative debt and eviction notices are on the rise.

Technologies like NEST thermostats and smart energy meters would help LADWP meet demand and keep costs low — creating monthly savings for LADWP customers. These programs would benefit low-income renters the most and help make our clean energy transition more equitable. As of now, LADWP has struggled to expand its energy efficiency and demand response programs. We need to invest more in energy efficiency in order to reach 100 percent clean energy by 2035 according to the Early & No biofuels scenario.

Getting our grid to clean energy is just one part of the puzzle. Phasing out fossil fuels also means using clean energy to drive our cars and heat and cool our homes. Because the vast majority of LA’s residents are renters, finding ways to provide them with wind and solar power, electric vehicle charging stations, and deep energy savings will ensure a just recovery and clean energy future.

Our city of four million has the chance to grow thousands of clean energy jobs as we build the solar and battery storage we need to be more resilient. Local upgrades to homes and multi-unit buildings are another great source of clean energy jobs.

But if we want this study to be equitable, we need mass public participation.

The climate and environmental justice movements in LA need your voice. “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” wrote Frederick Douglass. “It never has and never will.”

Nothing short of a mass transformation of our energy system will stop climate change, so how can the people of LA take the lead in these pivotal months? Here are some great options to make your voice heard:

First and foremost, by supporting the development of the new Climate Emergency Mobilization Office. The LA City Council will be discussing the LA 100 study at the Energy, Climate Change, Environmental Justice and River (ECCEJ+R) committee which meets every first and third Thursday of the month at 10 am. Councilmember O’Farrell chairs the committee, which will have a lot of power over the direction LADWP takes as we move forward. The council, Mayor Garcetti, and LADWP will need to hear from you.

LA climate Movement action at LADWP, Eland Vote, 9/10/2019 Credit: Alex Nagy

Another option for anyone wanting to learn more about the LA 100 Clean Energy Study, the fight to phase out urban oil drilling, and the movement to create thousands of local energy-efficient jobs, is Food & Water Watch’s Climate Justice for LA Campaign Launch this Thursday, February 25 at 5:30 pm. You can RSVP here. Whether you are an LADWP customer, community leader, climate activist, or clean energy advocate, this campaign has something for you.

Ten years ago, then Council President Eric Garcetti pledged to protect communities from the dangers of fossil fuels by getting LA off coal fired-power by 2020. LA is still running on coal today! We cannot wait another 10 years for city officials to decide whether or not to get off dirty energy. With the pandemic, economic recession, and constant climate disasters, we need a just recovery for LA and we need it now.

Tell the Mayor and City Council it’s time to transform our energy system in LA! Support a community-led transition to 100% clean energy by 2030 here.