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Published on March 5th, 2009 | by Jennifer Kho


Solar Suspense Continues in LA

March 5th, 2009 by  

Last night was a long one for Los Angeles solar power aficionados, and the wait’s not over yet. The fate of Measure B, which calls for the LA utility to install 400 megawatts of solar power on city-owned property, is still too close to call after Angelenos cast their ballots Tuesday.

At last count, the measure appeared to be on the verge of failing, with the “No” votes ahead by 1,322 votes — a narrow 0.6 percent — and only one precinct, with about 156 ballots, left unreported. But supporters still have a chance, as thousands of late, provisional and write-in ballots have yet to be tallied.

At stake is the only piece of Solar LA, an ambitious 1.3-gigawatt solar plan that newly reelected Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled in November, put to a public vote.

In fact, policy buffs say the city and its utility, the LA Department of Water and Power (DWP), didn’t technically need to take the plan to the voters at all. But the mayor’s office wanted residents to have an opportunity to weigh in, said David Libatique, LA’s associate director for energy and the environment. “It’s a huge investment in public money, and people in LA should have the opportunity to say yes,” he told me back in February. “This is something people are going to be able to see and, in some cases, touch, on their own houses.”

At the time, Libatique said he would be surprised if Measure B failed — and indeed, early results showed the measure appeared to be passing, leading to a premature victory claim by the Yes on Measure B campaign. He said the mayor’s office saw the vote as a test of the public’s support of solar power. “It would certainly come as a surprise that the public doesn’t think we should be investing in solar,” he said.

But critics of the plan, some of whom still hoped the measure would pass, put forth other reasons. Some — such as Adam Browning, executive director of solar-advocacy group Vote Solar, and Preston Roper, executive vice president for corporate development and operations at Tioga Energy — contended the measure kept the LA market closed to the competition that could win ratepayers the best prices. Specifying that the DWP, the largest municipal utility in the country, would own the installations would end up shutting out companies that finance and own solar projects in exchange for long-term power-purchase agreements, they said.

Others, including the California Solar Energy Industries Association, said that a provision that called for city workers to install the solar-power systems would lead to “unnecessary higher cost.” The Los Angeles Times ran several editorials (see here, here and here) asserting that the measure was more about union power and DWP job security than about advancing solar-electricity generation.

Browning still hopes the measure passes, even though some of the elements made it difficult for him “to jump in with full enthusiasm.” “I’ll be very disappointed if it doesn’t pass,” he told me. But even if it fails, the message shouldn’t be misread as a lack of support for solar, he added. “What we learned from this campaign is that both opponents, as well as supporters, of this initiative want solar energy,” he said. “Nobody was saying this shouldn’t be done because we’re worried about solar. The takeaway should be ‘More solar for LADWP.'”

Would the city consider going forward with plan in another form, if voters rejected it as written? In response to this hypothetical question, Libatique said last month that while there would be no prohibition keeping DWP from putting a plan into effect on its own, the point of the vote was to assess residents’ support. “We would really have to look at why voters voted it down before making a decision,” he said.

In any case, while the final votes on Measure B are being counted, solar advocates are pushing the city to move forward with the other two parts of the Solar LA plan. Those involve 380 megawatts of residential and small-commercial solar and 500 megawatts of large desert solar projects.

Photo of LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa courtesy of Tyrone D. Washington/ LA Mayor’s Office. 

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About the Author

-- With more than nine years of reporting experience, Jennifer Kho has been covering green technology since 2004, when she started the cleantech beat at Red Herring magazine. She wrote for Red Herring until 2007, when she helped launch the Greentech Media site as its founding editor. She left Greentech Media in November. Her stories have appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and TheStreet.com. She also regularly contributes to Earth2Tech.

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