Firestorm over City's Solar Energy Plan

Critics flares over "backroom" deal to require using DWP to install solar units on rooftops of buildings

McCain and Obama want clean energy. Oilman T. Boone Pickens is spending a fortune to convince the public to support clean energy. Everybody wants clean energy but nobody more than Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council who want the rays of the sun and gusts of the wind to carry them to electoral victory.

Villaraigosa, Council President Eric Garcetti and Councilwomen Wendy Greuel and Jan Perry are scrambling to get a measure approved for the March 3 ballot -- the same one they're on -- that would require commercial, industrial and government buildings to use DWP workers with their inflated salaries and benefits to install solar panels.

There's a lot of self-interest in their plan and little public interest. Union boss Brian D'Arcy who through the clout IBEW virtually runs the DWP has channeled a lot of money to their campaigns and will undoubtedly help them a great deal more as he drools at the prospect of adding hundreds of new members to his union and works to the DWP payroll.

And then there's the problem that for all City Hall's "green" talk and the mayor's boast he's making L.A. "the greenest city in America" if not the world and the universe, the DWP is far behind the curve and faces enormous and costly challenges to meet its targets.

The Daily News editorialized today, saying "this initiative has "backroom deal" written all over it... why the rush? It's two weeks before the deadline to put measures on the March ballot and the Department of Water and Power doesn't have a plan or even a firm estimate on how much it will cost to install all those solar panels. Rough guesses put the figure at somewhere between $1.3 billion and $3 billion.'

The L.A. Chamber of Commerce is just as critical. In an open letter, CEO Gary Toebben said the goal should be to produce the most renewable energy at the lowest cost.

"We believe the proposed programs fails to meet that goal because it would prohibit the DWP from seeking competitive rates for solar power community...The program would deny work to local solar industry companies and their workers, and exclude private sector energy developers,  and restrict a building owner's right to seek competitive rates for solar installation."

The truth is the city has a wretched record on renewable energy and still gets half the city's electricity from the dirtiest source, coal-burning plants. Ten years ago, it signed contracts with its 30 largest customers  barring them from installing solar energy or buying other green power in exchange for giving them 5 percent discounts. The goal, in the face of possible deregulation, was to keep them as DWP customers but the result was a missed opportunity to install solar units atop the dozens of new schools being built by LAUSD.

Trying to catch up with with Southern California Edison which gets 16 percent of its power from renewable sources compared to the city's 10 percent and to meet its 20 percent goal within two years, the DWP is paying huge premiums to outbid others for wind power from the Northwest -- costs that are passed through directly to ratepayers without them knowing it.

The nation's economic crisis calls in doubt whether many of the projects DWP has invested in will come online in time, adding to the pressure to but renewable energy at any cost.

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