LA voters to decide on solar energy measure

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Everybody likes the idea of solar energy, at least that's what the backers of one Los Angeles ballot measure are counting on. Tomorrow, Angelenos will consider whether Measure B will deliver more power from the sun to the city. KPCC's Molly Peterson reports that some people who support solar don't support the plan.

Molly Peterson: Shortly after the November election, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa reiterated a goal on which he's staked his environmental credentials.

Antonio Villaraigosa: Now together this city is setting a standard with our commitment to getting 35 percent of our energy from renewable sources by 2020.

Peterson: At a solar plant in south L.A., the mayor and Department of Water and Power chief David Nahai unveiled plans to reach that goal with 1,300 megawatts of energy from the sun. That's a little more than 15 percent of current peak demand.

David Nahai: Where others see merely a legal obligation, we have found an opportunity for economic stimulation and environmental stewardship. Where others see merely a problem we have found a bold solution.

Peterson: Measure B represents one-third of that solution. It would change L.A.'s charter to require the DWP to develop, own, and operate 400 megawatts of solar power – enough to power up to half a million homes for a year. City Council President Eric Garcetti acknowledges that the measure isn't entirely necessary.

Eric Garcetti: We could do it in council, but I think it's an important enough decision to make that we take it to the voters to have the public buy in on the decision. That's an important threshold at this point. But also then to make sure that a future council or mayor can't reverse that. It creates a much higher threshold.

Peterson: Local environmentalists point out that cheap, dirty coal has kept L.A.'s energy rates artificially low. But some statewide solar lobbying groups have stayed on the fence about Measure B. Adam Browning of Vote Solar says that opening more opportunities to more companies, as other parts of L.A.'s solar plan do, promotes better, cheaper technology.

Adam Browning: If utilities want to get involved in this business, they should be allowed to do so only on condition that they nurture and build a local solar industry that can continue to provide lower and lower cost solar for all ratepayers. And I think that's where LADWP's plan has been decidedly mixed.

Peterson: Owning and operating 400 megawatts of energy from the sun would likely require new jobs at the DWP. That would boost the ranks of the utility's employee union, Electricians Local 18. That's a big reason Brian D'Arcy backs Measure B. The head of Local 18 says that's not the only reason.

Brian D'Arcy: DWP won't do it on their own. This city and its leadership are big on press conferences – they're not big on results.

Peterson: Opponents of Measure B have an eye on results too. If passed, its new rules would create a solar plan before the DWP knows how it would affect customers. Nick Patsaouras, a candidate for city controller, once sat on the commission that monitors the utility.

Nick Patsaouras: What they are asking right now is a blank check. Let's slow down. Because what will happen four or five years from now, audits will be done. Instead of a dollar we got 40 cents to a dollar.

Peterson: Jane Usher has questions too. Last year she resigned from L.A.'s planning commission over concerns about transparency in city dealings. Those same concerns echo for her with Measure B.

Jane Usher: How much would this cost? How would we pay for it? Why do we have to amend the city charter to be able to install solar panels? And why can't all the union laborers in this city bid for this work? Why is it only going to be done by DWP laborers?

Peterson: That last issue is turning to be one of the most contentious in this election – and in public discussion. Here's an exchange between Local 18 chief Brian D'Arcy and blogger Ron Kaye during a recent West L.A. debate.

D'Arcy You have no idea what you're talking about.
Ron Kaye Come on, Brian, you know as well as I this is a power grab for your union.
D'Arcy: No it isn't! We're putting people to work. And you apparently are against putting people to work!

[East L.A. Skills Center class]

Peterson: At the East Los Angeles Skills Center, a class assembles photovoltaic panels on a model roof, then runs wires to a circuit breaker. This isn't electrical training; students Robert David and Gustavo Silvas say that what electricians do is a small part of the work they're training for.

Robert David: These fuses right here, they come in and pop them in and then connect those two wires, and that's all they do.

Peterson: Silvas sees the upside in solar. He's heard that L.A.'s solar initiative will create thousands of jobs. Silvas has worked in construction before – he says he understands competition's tough for a new kind of work.

Gustavo Silvas: It's all politics. The electrical union is trying to get in, you know. Everybody wants a piece of the pie, but they're just teaching us just in case they have us do this. Because what they're trying to do is create jobs. There is no jobs right now.

Peterson: Measure B supporters say their initiative will create jobs. What's also true is that it'll give those jobs to DWP employees in Electricians Local 18. Guys like Gustavo Silvas may have to look elsewhere for steady work.