I want to ask you to take a moment and use your imagination. Forget the Los Angeles you simultaneously love and loathe. Ignore the traffic and hostility we sometimes experience. Try to take a break from the idea that what seems promising will ultimately disappoint you and look up into the sky. What do you see?
It’s no secret that Los Angeles averages 329 days of sunshine every year. It’s the great un-tapped commodity of southern California. The strength of our tourist economy and outdoor lifestyles remind us of this on a regular basis, but as a resource, we have yet to maximize the potential of a Solar LA.
There is a new program, however, that seems to be putting this under-utilized energy source to work for us. It is called the Clean LA Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) program. Basically, residents and businesses will be paid to generate solar power. On the surface, it appears as though we are finally moving forward towards a sane and sensible world of sustainability.
The problem I have with this program is that it’s capped at 150 MW. To put it in terms that mean something to everybody: that’s only 34,000 houses. Southern California has an estimated 5 GW of solar potential. To put that into perspective, 5 GW would power somewhere between 3.7 and 5 million homes.
How can we be satisfied with just flirting with our potential? It seems as though someone in city hall stumbles upon an amazing idea every few years that could really put us on a path towards actual sustainability. But, when it comes time to implement that idea into meaningful action, our local government fails to act on a greater vision. Instead, we inch forward in fits and starts.
Take LADWP’s Residential Drought Resistant Landscape Initiative Program launched in 2009 as an example. It offered rebates for customers who replaced their water-sucking lawn with drought-tolerant landscaping. Residents were given $1 per square foot with maximums of $2,000 per person, but funding levels were set so low that the program ended soon after its initiation because demand far outpaced the program’s budget. Translation: people want to be sustainable more than our current leaders understand.
The program has now been restarted effected July 1, 2012 with a $1.50 per square foot of lawn removed and a per house maximum of $3,000. Please note the difference in price, because significant infrastructure changes require investment of capital and inflation always changes the cost of multi-year projects. In other words, we’re now paying $1.50 a square foot for something that should have cost us $1. With interest rates close to zero, the lack of collective vision in our elected officials just cost us a lot of money to do something right the first time.
I understand as well as anyone else that we are in the middle of a long recession, but when it comes to the greater vision of who we are as a people, I expect leadership, not the promise of failed greatness and the camaraderie of just trying hard.
If we were to maximize the solar potential of Los Angeles and put forth meaningful efforts to make our lives more energy efficient, we could transform our economic identity and create new industries of the future. A solar LA producing its capacity of 5 GW would not only meet the needs of every home and business, but it would create enough excess energy to stimulate venture capital investment in ancillary industries.
Use your imagination and consider what a boom in excess power could be. Picture LA as the hub of cutting edge energy research and storage technology innovation. Is a solar desalination plant far off our horizon? Will we export energy? We already have world class learning institutions. All we need is the vision in leadership and the tenacity to set big goals today, so that we can reach our potential tomorrow, not sometime next week when it costs more.