Panel asks DWP “What’s so hard about getting to 100% renewable energy?”

Moderator Lisa Hart (NCSA), with panelists (l to r) Jasmin Vargas (Food & Water Watch), City Council District 10 candidate Aura Vasquez, Louis Ting (DWP), and Nathan Wyeth (Sunrun)

On May 11, the Neighborhood Council Sustainability Alliance held a panel discussion at USC’s Institute for Genetic Medicine Art Gallery about the challenges of getting to 100% clean energy.  Participants included representatives from the DWP, Food & Water Watch, and Neighborhood Councils.

NCSA board member Lisa Hart started off the discussion with a brief recap of events from 1992 (the year of the first big international climate agreement) through 2016 (when the NCSA and others urged the city to commit to 100% renewable electricity by 2030), and up to last year (when the state passed SB100, which requires electricity be 60% renewable by 2030, and sets an aspirational goal of 100% carbon-free electricity by 2045)…and then this year (when Mayor Garcetti announced that obsolete coastal generators would be repowered with renewable energy).

FWW’s Jasmin Vargas (whose organization’s study claims switching LADWP to renewable energy by 2030 is possible at no added cost) said that the 60% of city residents who rent need to be engaged and included in the energy transition, and that it’s all up to us to create a sustainable future with good jobs.

LADWP’s Director of Power Planning, Louis Ting, made it clear he likes local solar energy (“These rooftops [at USC’s health science campus] should all be covered with solar panels”), hates smog (“It causes cancer and respiratory issues”), and is very serious about planning how to get to 100% carbon-free energy (“The city told us in 2016 to study how to get to 100% [so] we partnered with the National Renewable Energy Lab to study that in detail… and I’m comfortable in saying we’ll get to 60% way before 2030″).  But Ting also emphasized that while he urged his staff always to be “thinking like a startup,” the LADWP is a big ship, and it will take time to turn it.

Sunrun’s Director of Grid Services, Nathan Wyeth, said “very few if any places across the entire country are tackling the question of 100% clean energy in a more direct, head-on way than Los Angeles…the leadership here has been courageous.”  He quoted the head of LADWP, David Wright, as saying every new solar installation from here on out should come with a battery, and noted that Sunrun’s study found that if current trends continue, residential and multi-family solar should be able to take over for one of the coastal power plants being retired by DWP.

Former LADWP commissioner, environmental justice advocate, and City Council District 10 candidate Aura Vasquez added that getting LA to 100% clean energy needs leadership not just from LADWP or city officials, but from all of us.  “Let’s remember that what’s not happening is not because activists like Jasmin aren’t working hard enough, or because Louis isn’t making it happen, or because we don’t have the technology that Sunrun is proposing… it’s because we have not yet woken up and started showing up to demand it,” she said.  In addition to urging people to show up at DWP board meetings, Vasquez also pointed out that elections matter, saying “As long as we have elected officials that are not on board with a 100% renewable future, we’re going to be having these discussions forever…If we’re not all in on this, we’re not going to be able to turn the tide.  It’s that big.”

There was broad agreement among the panelists about the goal of getting to 100% clean energy. At several points Ting and Vasquez even exchanged high fives about past successes.  The question in the air was “When?  Why not by 2030, or sooner?”  But Ting mentioned that one challenge is that there have been a series of fires in utility-scale batteries, 20 in Korea and two in Arizona, which illustrate that although the technology works, it may have a way to go before it’s rock solid.

Vasquez said another challenge is outdated infrastructure.  For example, minute-by-minute information about grid conditions is important for reliability, especially as rooftop solar becomes more common.  But LADWP power meters are still read manually every other month…at least until DWP installs more modern meters.

The audience seemed dissatisfied with Ting and Vasquez’s explanations of the challenges, and asked for better outreach.  Vasquez remarked that the community and LADWP may have different ideas about what constitutes good outreach.  Vargas also said that the next nine months, as NREL’s 100% renewable energy study is being completed, will be a crucial time for good outreach.  She also announced that FWW would be holding its own outreach meetings in June and July to educate the community about the move to 100% clean energy, and help them sign up for LADWP’s home energy efficiency and shared solar programs.

The panel session ended with everybody better informed, but no closer to consensus on how close to 100% clean energy LADWP would or should be by 2030.  When asked about this after the discussion, Ting said “We don’t know yet; the NREL study should help answer that question.”

In the interest of readability, the above summary omits a key fact mentioned by Mr. Ting:  SB100’s 60%-by-2030 and 100%-by-2045 targets use different yardsticks.  The 60%-by-2030 is simply a refinement of the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard rules, which are requirements to provide more solar and wind power, but don’t count large hydro or nuclear power.  The endgame is harder, though, so the 100%-by-2045 goal gives utilities more flexibility in how and when they get rid of the remaining carbon emissions. Currently, LADWP gets about 15% of its electricity from non-RPS, non-carbon energy, so on the day it hits the 60% renewable target, it will also reach 75% on the carbon-free target.  (Reminds one of a certain Tom Lehrer song… but it makes sense — check out the Senate committee deliberations on SB100 for context.)

For more details, you can listen to a recording of part of the discussion.

Postscript:

On the subject of outdated infrastructure: Mr. Ting’s colleague, Bill Barlak, LADWP Manager of System Reliability Studies, gave presentations to LADWP’s board on Jan 8 (recording, slides) and Jan 22 (recordingslides) with some gory details about the challenge of getting power to customers reliably, especially as we move towards 100% renewable energy:

  • DWP’s current transmission lines fail several times a month, forcing us to fire up the obsolete coastal generators to prevent blackouts
  • This is one reason the DWP’s Long Term Transmission Plan already says we need to rebuild 173 miles of transmission lines
  • Getting to 100% renewable electricity means we’ll need to build or upgrade 500 miles of transmission lines before we shut off the obsolete coastal generators
  • Building new transmission lines can take 10 years or more

Although Mr. Barlak didn’t go into it, this reporter’s understanding is that increasing local solar, or adding connections to SCE’s grid, may help with those challenges.

See also “Want to know if California can make zero emissions by 2045? Here’s what to watch

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About Daniel Kegel

Dan Kegel is a software engineer and a member of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council's Sustainability Committee. He also volunteers with Citizens' Climate Lobby Los Angeles and is an occasional contributor to the Buzz.

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