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Power Play: California, Electricity and Climate Change

Posted Mondays, Jeremy Rosenberg's (@LosJeremy) Laws That Shaped LA column spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) / SB 1078
Year: 2002
Jurisdiction: California
Nominated by: Jonathan Parfrey

A California law passed in 2002, and updated since by other legislation, mandates that by 2020, thirty-three percent of the state's electricity come from renewable resources.

That means the state is already using -- and must continue to employ -- an increasing combination of solar power, wind power, geothermal power, biomass power, wave and tidal power and "small hydro" power -- the latter as opposed to massive projects such as the Hoover Dam.**

Why all the legislative activity? Why the urgent -- if belated -- movement to wean the Golden State off of coal and other more greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels?

"The City of L.A., Jonathan Parfrey says, "is facing a crisis -- the way that every other city in the world is facing a crisis -- with climate change."

Parfrey is the founder and executive director of Climate Resolve, a locally-focused, solutions-based climate change organization. Parfrey is also the former head of the GREEN LA Coalition and, since 2008, has served as a Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioner. The views expressed in this column are his own.

But while Parfrey can easily and thoroughly list off a host of potentially disastrous forthcoming local effects of climate change, he also maintains a sense of optimism that Angelenos will be so motivated by the climate crisis as to transform the city.

A window display hypes electricity in this undated photograph. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

"I'm excited by a new kind of Los Angeles," Parfrey says. "A Los Angeles where we conserve water, where we are able to recycle our water, where we are able to capture more stormwater, and where we're able to generate our electricity from renewable resources."

Parfrey also speaks about the need to transform the city's longtime automobile-centric culture. "I think we're at a crossroad," Parfrey says. "Some people want to point to L.A.'s 'beautiful' past of its suburban communities, of its miles and miles of kind of indistinguishable streets and boulevards that stretch out for dozens of miles."

Parfrey isn't one of those nostalgics or faux-stalgics. Instead, the Climate Resolve chief, who wears a suit while bicycling to work, sees Los Angeles is being "reborn, under our feet" by transit-oriented development and transit hubs. "Another word for that," he says, eschewing jargon, "is neighborhoods."

Past Laws That Shaped L.A. columns have discussed here and here and here some of the legislative roots of the city's infamous sprawl and its car culture and air quality.

Future Laws columns will revisit Parfrey's comments regarding a suite of other climate change-related laws, such as the one generally considered to be the influential, AB32.

Future Laws columns will also track back to water-related issues such as those mentioned, up above, by Parfrey. (In the meanwhile, visit past related columns here and here and here.

But the rest of today's space, we'll focus on Parfrey's electricity comments. Towards that end, Parfrey nominates the California Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) as a Law That Shaped L.A.

As the LADWP website explains: "An RPS is a goal to generate a certain percentage of the energy delivered to the customer from renewable resources by a certain date."

Here in the Golden State, these percentages have climbed incrementally thanks to, by this count, thirteen different laws passed and executive orders created during the past ten years.

The state's RPS first became law in 2002, when Governor Gray Davis signed SB 1078. Sponsored by Senator Byron Sher, the law was passed a year following the Rolling Enron Power Blackouts that hit the state.

In this 1925 photograph, a million-volt transformer at CalTech shoots 40-foot-tall flames during a power transmission and insulation electrical engineering experiment. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

California is so often at or near the vanguard of U.S. environmental action and policy. The same is true regarding RPS. That, of course, isn't saying all that much, given all the forces of local, national and global climate change that are already irrevocably in play.

As SB 1078 was joined -- or "accelerated" in the word of the California Public Utilities Commission RPS Program Overview - by later bills such as SB 107 (in 2006) and SB 2 (in 2011) -- the percentage of mandated renewables has, like sea levels in climate change models, risen.

SB 1078 called for twenty percent of the state's energy to come from renewable sources by 2017. Specifically, the text of the law read in part:

"Each governing body of a local publicly owned electric utility, as defined in Section 9604, shall be responsible for implementing and enforcing a renewables portfolio standard that recognizes the intent of the Legislature to encourage renewable resources, while taking into consideration the effect of the standard on rates, reliability, and financial resources and the goal of environmental improvement."

By today, the CPUC calls California's RPS updated RPS program, "one of the most ambitious" such programs in the nation. The CPUC overview elaborates why: "The RPS program requires investor-owned utilities, electric service providers, and community choice aggregators to increase procurement from eligible renewable energy resources."

Or, to put this another way: "Doesn't it make sense," Parfrey asks, rhetorically, "to harness the power of the wind and the sunlight and power of the earth through geothermal forces rather than relying on coal?"

On a related note, then, what would Los Angeles, and California be like today without RPS? "First off, our air would be dirtier," Parfrey says. "Because we would have to rely more on the traditional forms of producing electricy and some of those forms are pretty dirty. Burning coal is very dirty."

Los Angeles still draws forty percent of its power from coal. Just because that amount is temporarily still allowable under RPS and other parts of SB 1078, that doesn't mean that coal use fits with the mandates of other laws. "Los Angeles is committed to getting off of coal and we're in the process of doing that," Parfrey says.

This report by five Stanford graduate students for the NRDC indicates that from 2002 to 2010, California's generation of renewable power had grown from 11% to between 15-16.5%.

Coal is stored in Long Beach in this 1996 photograph. Photo courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

The California Energy Commission says that in 2009, 11.6% of the state's electricity came from renewable resources, and another 9.2% came from "large hydro plants."

The numbers have increased since. Parfrey presents a quick survey of some of the state's leading power providers: "PG&E is at 19%. San Diego Gas and Electric is at 21% renewables. Southern California Edison is at 20%. And the [Los Angeles] Department of Water & Power reached 20% in 2010."

Again, Parfrey is not speaking here on behalf of the city or the Commission on which he serves. But he's clearly proud of that 20% figure, which he says is four times as large as it was in 2005.

"I am so pleased that the DWP voluntarily embraced the 20% mandate when Mayor Villaraigosa learned that private utilities were being forced to meet the mandate," Parfrey says. "He heard that and he said, you know what, the City of L.A. is going to match that."

Parfrey believes all of these changes in energy sourcing must take place. He understands as well that the economics of doing so will be disruptive. But not in the negative, albeit necessary, ways that a critic might claim.

"We don't need to engage in destructive activities to generate our electricity," Parfrey says. "If people are alert and aware of the direction our society is going and the direction our economy is doing, then there can be people who generate the new technologies that actually benefit in this transition."

Or, to put the above another way: "You can make money," Parfrey says. "You can not only do good, but you can do well."


To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via @LosJeremy on Twitter, or by emailing: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or by leaving a comment at the bottom of this page. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

**For a definition of terms, explainers and ongoing excellent daily coverage, please visit my KCET.org colleague Chris Clarke's Rewire blog.


About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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