Several major issues were on the agenda at yesterday’s montly DWP Board of Commissioners meeting, but honoring outgoing Commissioner Bill Funderburk, a resident of the La Brea-Hancock neighborhood and former Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council board member, took center stage at the top of the meeting, with effusive praise from those he served with over the past five years.
“Vice President Funderburk, I can sincerely state during my tenure that I have never encountered a commissioner so dedicated towards uplifting Los Angeles,” said LADWP Commissioner Christina Noonan. “I’m amazed at your poignancy and leadership.”
Commissioner Aura Vasquez said “A lot of people have talked about Bill as a leader. I’d like to talk of him as a mentor, a cheerleader, who has really uplifted women on the board — which is difficult in a large organization. It was like I was a new duck in the water, and he acted as a guide, helping me be a better person, a better leader, a better representative for my community. I am beyond grateful to Mayor Garcetti for the opportunity to serve with him.”
And Dr. Fred Pickel, the LADWP’s Ratepayer Advocate, said “[The Office of Public Accountability] and I personally want to thank you. When you agreed to take over my seat on the GWNC, and even more when you agreed to take a seat on this board, you took it far further than I could have possibly imagined. I have learned from you how to step into the other party’s shoes. Bill, you’ve made some amazing changes here.”
Funderburk was then presented with a golden wall clock made from a water meter, in honor of his service to the water system…a hunk of crystal from the bottom of Owens Lake, in honor of his help negotiating the Owens Lake settlement…and a proclamation from the City Council.
After the presentations, Funderburk shared parts of his life story, including how his grandparents were born in the Jim Crow south, but sent all seven of their children to prep school because the local high school only prepared students for blue collar jobs. Funderburk said his own father worked for the family’s undertaking business as an ambulance driver when he was ten years old. “He used to tell me about being traumatized by picking up bodies on the railroad tracks. [But] he didn’t tell me about the lynchings he picked up, not once,” Funderburk said. Still, however, “my father’s side of the family brought me to face the racism that exists everywhere.”
Funderburk said that when he first moved to Los Angeles, he stayed for six months with his uncle Jim Hargett, a leading local pastor who had worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was deeply involved in social justice in Los Angeles. Working with the DWP, Funderburk said, has helped him reconnect with those parts of the city that he had not been to since his early days here. He thanked his wife Felicia, their daughters Erika and Claire, and Claire’s mother Brooke, for their unconditional support during his years at the DWP.
So “it’s hard to say goodbye. This commission is a bridge to our future,” Funderburk said to the audience. “Challenge them, hold them accountable, but respect them, also. They’re knocking themselves out for the ratepayers. Each of them has their own way of bringing voices to the voiceless. Give them their due, they’re going to lead DWP into the 21st century.”
After everybody dried their eyes, the board moved on to its main charge – keeping the lights on.
The big topic was a vote on the plan to replace a giant coal plant in Utah with something more renewable and modern. LADWP General Manager David Wright gave a detailed presentation, recounting how the DWP negotiated a contract years ago, with 35 other utilities, to replace the 1,900 megawatt Intermountain coal plant with a 1,200 megawatt natural gas plant, scheduled to begin construction next year. In the years since the agreement, however, the DWP realized that it needs much less natural gas power and much more renewable energy. So two years ago, the utility started renegotiating. The smallest gas plant the other utilities in the partnership are willing to accept is 840 megawatts, so designs for the new plant have now been scaled down to that level, to make more room for sending a total of 1,560 megawatts of renewable energy down the 2,400 MW transmission line from Utah. The plan also includes $100 million for energy efficiency retrofits for low income multifamily housing, as well as $10 million for shared solar, and a virtual net metering pilot program.
After the presentation, there were many public comments. Environmentalists from the Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch, along with several individual residents, argued against building another natural gas plant of any size, saying the focus should be on renewable energy instead. Renewables such as solar and wind power, they said, pose fewer health risks, fewer climate risks, and are now even cheaper than fossil fuel…to the extent that any gas plant built today will be a white elephant in 15 years.
Tony Wilkinson, president of the NHENC and chair of the Neighborhood Council DWP oversight committee, argued that the proposal for the smaller natural gas plant comes from the right place, but that it’s too risky, and the utilities involved should build the originally-planned 1200 megawatt gas plant instead.
Meanwhile, Alison Mannos of Repower LA, Walker Wells of Global Green, Hilary Firestone of NRDC, and Blanca de la Cruz of CHPC all commented favorably on the energy efficiency and solar portion of the proposal. (Full disclosure: this writer also spoke in favor of the proposal.) And Fred Pickel, the DWP’s Ratepayer Advocate, gave a summary of his analysis, explaining why he thinks the proposal is low risk and a good deal for ratepayers.
After the public comments, Commissioner Noonan said, “When I joined the board I expressed concerns about subsidizing
fridges for other people. Now I understand it’s a win-win,” and asked whether the process for procuring these energy efficiency upgrades was transparent and resulted in the best deal for ratepayers. Department staff replied that reducing demand through energy efficiency is required by state law, and that the procurement process for these upgrades was done via an open, competitive bid.
Commisioner Vasquez pointed out that previous efforts to install local solar have been poorly subscribed. She said she would like to see a plan for spending the $10 million effectively, and that she particularly wants to see solar and storage installed to benefit neighborhoods affected by oil drilling.
Commisioner Funderburk commended Mr. Wright for the clarity of the presentation, and peppered Dr. Pickel and Mr. Wright with questions, including why it’s not feasible to do a 100% renewable project. Dr. Pickel gave a one-word answer: “Night.” Mr. Wright also noted that the DWP is exploring the feasibility of compressed air energy storage, or other storage technologies, at the project site, to reduce use of fossil fuels.
Mr. Funderburk also asked whether the proposal and the drive to higher levels of renewable energy might result in higher costs, lower reliability, or more local pollution. Dr. Pickel responded that renewable energy is generally cheaper than fossil energy, and that system reliability should be unaffected. In regards to the energy efficiency proposal, Mr. Funderburk suggested studying the urban heat problem, which is linked to health and crime impacts, as well as increased electricity transmission losses. He suggested living at Normandie and King, where you can feel the heat radiating off the streets, to understand how much worse the issue is in some areas.
Commissioner Noonan commented “We should take a moment to thank you, Mr. Wright, for trying to go full course on renewable energy. You should take a moment to pat yourselves on the back. I’ve been very impressed by how you have creatively exited former commitments we had with many entities, and you’re not getting enough credit for that. That we were the first to exit shows how well you’re doing your jobs. I’m all for leading the nation in having electric cars and renewable fuels. We have to do this in a responsible manner, we have to have redundancy, so people in hospitals and lower economic regions have the power they need. I think you’re doing this in a responsible and conscientious manner, and you are leading the nation.”
In the end, the proposal passed unanimously.