The Renewables Part III: Harvesting the Sun in Los Angeles

The Renewables Part III: Harvesting the Sun in Los Angeles

April 21, 2015

Downtown Los Angeles, once a rather windswept zone of dust and awkward, empty buildings, has come alive in recent years with a blossoming of residential development. But it's LA's natural, geographical center that's now been restored as an emerging transit hub. The intersection of Amtrak, commuter rail, and LA metro lines forms at the majestic Union Station, a wonder of Mission Revival architecture.

These transportation options are new developments in a city that once boasted the largest streetcar network in the world, with over 20 separate lines stretching from Pasadena to the coast, and from Hollywood down to edges of Orange County. When the Los Angeles Metro Expo Line extension is completed next year, it will be the first time since the 1940s, a trip from downtown to the beach in Santa Monica will become possible by rail. In many ways, today's Expo Line is a resurrection project: its tracks will lay almost exactly where the Santa Monica Air Line streetcar once ran through the entire Westside, before cars and cheap gasoline converted Los Angeles into the ganglion of freeways we see today.

Today, displacing the automobile in Los Angeles would appear to be a Sisyphean task. But the regrettable lurch towards a petrol-powered transportation system, many decades ago, is only one of the problematic legacies Los Angeles, and the state of California, must confront in the new millennium. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), an historic drought, perhaps the worst in a thousand years, has stressed water supplies so badly that it’s caused hydropower to crash from 23% to 11% of the state’s power generation between 2011 and 2014.

Antiquated water infrastructure in the great Central Valley looks to further exacerbate the problem, as California agriculture corners the state’s overall water demand. Unstoppable economic growth—expanding the cities, spreading out into the deserts, always consuming more energy—was once a key part of California’s brand. But nature, it would seem, has started to put up roadblocks.

In answer, Los Angeles has undertaken a surprising effort to refashion its transport, water, and energy systems—although progress is slow. Automobile registrations stood at 5.9 million in Los Angeles County in 2004. A decade later, and admittedly in part due to recession and slower population growth, registered autos stood at just 6.2 million, according to California’s DMV. That’s also due, however, to the heroic Measure R—the long term investment in public rail that took effect in 2009 that attempts to persuade Angelinos to abandon their cars in favor of the train.

Data on air quality, long the bane of LA’s reputation, show a clear improvement. Los Angeles has even taken on the herculean project of restoring its river, nearly 50 miles long, creating an estuary that doubles as a connecting bicycle route.

Finally, Los Angeles is doing its best to embrace solar power as every entity from businesses to universities, to individual homeowners (and LA Metro too), races to construct rooftop solar. Los Angeles, like much of the rest of the world, is valiantly trying to reduce its exposure to oil, while increasing its exposure to electricity. And more importantly, electricity from clean power.