LA Hopes to Meet Renewable Energy Goals with Solar from the Owens Valley

Los Angeles’ ambitious plan to replace coal-powered electricity with renewable energy by 2020 will be met, in part, by opening city-owned land in the historic Owens Valley to solar power, according to Deputy Mayor for Energy and the Environment David Freeman.
For anyone familiar with LA’s history, this news could not be more ironic: the Owens Valley was the site of the “California Water Wars,” a 100-year old conflict between valley residents and the city over a different precious resource: water.


A Realistic Goal
Los Angeles currently gets about 40% of its power from coal, or about 1500 megawatts, primarily two coal fired plants in Utah run by Intermountain Power Agency. Earlier this month, Mayor Villaraigosa, in his second inaugural address, pledged to replace all of that power with renewable energy by 2020, but did not provide any details.
Freeman assured me the goal is realistic, and laid out some of the steps the city hopes to take, of which the Owens Valley is just one part.
“We know what we’re doing, we know we can get this done,” said Freeman. “We’re not looking for excuses, we’re looking to make it happen. That’s the difference between the Mayor and some private power company – they’ll show why they couldn’t make the goal, our job is to make the goal.”
Tainted History
A century ago, under the leadership of William Mulholland, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power bought up land in the Owens Valley to secure water rights for the growing city downstream. In 1913 Mulholland completed a 223 mile-long aqueduct to bring the water to the city, but locals objected to LADWP’s heavy-handed tactics, and violence broke out in 1924.
One of those tactics was the city’s “underhanded” purchase of land, and water rights attached to that land, in the valley – the same land that may some day be covered in solar power stations.
Indeed, solar power from the Owens Valley could prove a coup for the city comparable to Mulholland’s aqueduct. Solar power companies have long expressed frustration with the onerous process of getting permitting for projects. But since LA already owns land in the valley, negotiating the construction of solar electric plants should be simpler than it would on private or federal land.
Perhaps even more important, there are pre-existing transmission lines in the valley; finding or building transmission lines is a major stumbling block to constructing new power plants.
“Solar [power] has been like Moses out there in the desert, looking for the Promised Land – and we have it there in the Owens Valley,” said Freeman.
Unfortunately, there are still outstanding issues between the city and the valley. In 2006, after protracted negotiations, LADWP allowed some water to flow back into the lower Owens Valley River, but many locals are not satisfied. The Owens Valley Committee, a local environmental watchdog, argues the city is still depleting the valley’s water resources at an unsustainable rate, along with other environmental damage.
Not Just Solar
Freeman also aims to meet the goal by decreasing electricity consumption in the city 10% by 2020. One plan to do this is the creation of a core of “Green Doctors,” licensed by the city to inspect homes and businesses for ways they can improve energy efficiency, then issue loans on the spot to make the improvements.
“We have in mind very aggressive actions,” said Freeman.
Wind power from Wyoming, as well as geothermal power, are also being considered. To pick up the slack when solar or wind power is inactive, such as at night, the city will probably resort to natural gas, which is more expensive, but much cleaner than coal.
Including hydroelectric and nuclear power, Freeman said the city aims to be 60% carbon free by 2020.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.