LA Faces Tough Energy Challenge

Right now 76 percent of the electricity provided by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is generated from coal and natural gas.

By Benjamin Gottlieb
|  Thursday, Apr 14, 2011  |  Updated 8:45 AM PDT
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Kicking the Coal Addiction

Getty Images / David McNew

Solar Power Project Atop Staples Center.

Meeting the tough new state law requiring utilities to dramatically reduce their reliance on traditional energy sources such as coal and oil may be tough going for Los Angeles.

Case in point: nearly two years ago Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pledged to make Los Angeles a coal-free city by 2020, but little progress has been made.
 
Romel Pascual, deputy mayor of environmental issues, acknowledged the lag.
 
 
“That commitment is still there,” Pascual said. “The goal is still there. How quickly we’ll get there, I suppose, is the biggest issue.”
 
Right now 76 percent of the electricity provided by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is generated from coal and natural gas, according to the mayor’s office.
 
The DWP, the largest city-owned utility company in the country, supplies power to 1.45 million customers annually, with roughly 40 percent of L.A.’s energy coming from coal-fired power plants. To put that in perspective, L.A. burns about 12,000 tons of coal every day and more than 4 million tons per year to generate electricity, according to the Sierra Club-backed Beyond Coal Campaign.
 
“We aren’t on track because there is currently no plan in place,” David Graham-Caso, associate press deputy for the Sierra Club, said. “There was no schedule laid out. There was a date and an end goal, but no concrete plan.”
 
L.A. owns shares in two out-of-state coal plants – the Navajo Generating Station in Arizona and the Intermountain Power Project in Utah – which released a combined total of more than 36 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2006, according to the Beyond Coal Campaign’s website.
 
Late last year the DWP released an integrated resource plan or IRP addressing the city’s current coal consumption.
 
Included in the IRP was a stipulation to sever ties with the Navajo Generating Station by 2014, which would reduce the DWP’s emissions by 10.5 million metric tons – equivalent to removing 350,000 cars from the road.
 
But the IRP suggested 2027 as the planned split from the coal power plant in Utah, the year DWP’s contract with the facility expires.
 
Speaking at a Sierra Club-sponsored Beyond Coal Campaign event at USC in March, Pascual boiled down the delay in taking coal out of the LADWP’s grid to the highly contentious topic of electricity rates.
 
“We all want the renewables and the jobs associated with green energy,” Pascual said. “But when we talk about rates, it’s a horrible conversation.”
 
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the absence of a concrete plan to reduce L.A.’s coal consumption stems from a lack of urgency within the city.
 
“The potential is more than there,” Brune said. “But the political will… we haven’t seen the political will translate to actual kilowatts on the ground.”
 
Graham-Caso said pollution from coal plants plays a role in four of the five leading causes of death in the United States – heart disease, cancer, stroke and chronic lower respiratory disease.
 
“What people don’t understand is that from these plants, we produce carbon pollution, mercury, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, which causes haze,” Graham-Caso said.
 
Because of the geography of the Los Angeles Basin and adjacent San Fernando Valley, the area is predisposed to atmospheric inversion, which reduces air convection and holds on to smog, making the region especially pollution-prone.
 
Opponents of the mayor’s pledge are concerned about skyrocketing utility rates.
 
“To get off of coal by 2020 would be a financial disaster,” said Jack Humphrerville, owner of Recycler.com and a writer for CityWatchLA.com, pointing to the assumed cost of using alternative energy sources such as solar and wind to power L.A.
 
Humphrevile said the city could not rely on solar and wind-generated power to meet the base load demand – or the minimum amount of power DWP must make available to its customers – for all of L.A.
 
Additionally, the city would incur a huge penalty if it were to opt out of its contract with Intermountain Power early to meet the mayor’s 2020 deadline.
 
Without Intermountain, Los Angeles would need some kind of backup plan. “You can’t predict the wind and you can’t predict the sun,” Humphreville said. 
 
However, weaning L.A. completely off of coal would actually reduce utility rates in the long term, Mark Bernstein, acting director of the USC Energy Institute, said.
 
“Outside of the human argument – where renewable energy is good for humanity and the environment – it makes sense from an economic standpoint,” Bernstein said.
 
Although the IRP could pave the way for L.A. to rid itself of coal-generated power for good, the new California law may also force the city to shake its coal habit.
 
“We need to be as aggressive at wanting this,” Pascual said, “as much as those who don’t want us to succeed.”

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