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L.A. Needs to Cut Solar Red Tape to Get Off Coal, Says Study

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Los Angeles is going to have to make some changes if it's going to reach its vaunted goal of going coal-free by 2025, and those changes mainly involve making the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power's bureaucracy work better.

That's according to a new study by the UCLA's Luskin Center for Innovation and the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity. The study, "Los Angeles Solar: Now and into the Future," says that L.A. could easily install 150 megawatts of new solar power capacity each year until 2025. In order to do so, however, it's going to need to get a lot easier to get new solar projects approved by LADWP.

According to the study, which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Business Council Institute, only 6.5 megawatts' worth of solar panels have come online so far through LADWP's pioneering Feed-in Tariff program, though the program is intended to create 100 megawatts' worth of new solar generating capacity. With another 64 megawatts somewhere in the contracting and construction phase, almost 30 megawatts of potential solar that could be getting built under the program isn't even on the drawing board.

LADWP will have to speed that process up to wean itself off power imported from out-of-state coal plants, says the report, and part of the problem is lack of staffing.

To its credit, the utility did ask the L.A. Board of Water and Power Commissioners in 2013 to let it add 30 full-time staff positions to process applications for solar arrays in the city, but two years later just three full-time workers are handling that task.

That means a backlog of applications, as staff struggle to examine each proposed new solar project for potential technical problems.

The utility hasn't exactly been sitting on its hands: it's managed to cut wait times for solar project approval pretty dramatically. At the outset of the Feed-in Tariff program, new projects took an average of 425 days to win approval. LADWP's got that down to 182 days on average: about six months. The utility has also streamlined contracting and insurance procedures, which makes things a bit smoother.

But it's not enough, say the study's authors: LADWP still needs more people on the job. "LADWP needs to staff up in order to fulfill the promise of the Feed-in Tariff program and meet the high priority placed on the program by Mayor Garcetti, the City Council and the Board of DWP Commissioners," saus J.R. De Shazo of UCLA's Luskin Center. "Los Angeles has the right amount of sun, available rooftops, trained workers and financing options. Adequate staffing at LADWP is the missing piece of the puzzle, and it needs to be put in place if Los Angeles is going to go reach its solar potential."

The Los Angeles Business Council has just released a tool that may also help speed things along: its "Large Rooftops of Los Angeles Database" offers a list of Los Angeles rooftops, searchable by zip code, that offer at least 100 kilowatts' worth of solar potential.

"We know how important the list of potential properties was to identifying projects during the launch phase of the FiT," said Business Council President Mary Leslie. "The L.A. Business Council is confident that the online listing will spur additional solar investment by posting the most opportune sites in the City of Los Angeles."

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