The Renewables Part III: Harvesting the Sun in Los Angeles

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.

Clean LA Solar

Southern California enjoys abundant solar resources: 300 days of sunshine per year. And Los Angeles has wasted no time in harvesting the sun. At Occidental College, for example, the enormous 1 megawatt (MW) solar array that unfurls across a hill above its athletic playing fields was, at the time it was installed in late 2012, the largest ground-mounted solar array in the city. While it’s true that Los Angeles, like most global mega-cities, does not have an abundance of undeveloped land to replicate many ground-mounted solar arrays, many of its buildings are ready-made to deploy solar panels. The Los Angeles Business Council Institute (LABC) has estimated that LA has 10,000 acres of rooftop resources. And Los Angeles, under the leadership of its new mayor Eric Garcetti, is strongly embracing a buildout of urban solar.

Over the past two years, in fact, LA has rolled out the largest solar rooftop feed-in-tarrif (FiT) program of any city in the United States. Clean LA Solar, a program offered through the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) has offered to purchase up to a total 150 MW of new rooftop solar. Businesses, apartment building owners, and others have successfully signed up through the program. Offering a fixed price to purchase back the power, Clean LA Solar has actually guided the offering price downward over the past two years from 17 cents a kilowatt hour (kWh) to 13 cents a kWh. As the last tranche of this program goes to market, demand is still strong—a testament to the program’s success.

John Bernhardt, Outreach and Communications Director for the Palo Alto-based Clean Coalition which helped design the program, says one of the primary aims of Clean LA Solar is to generate power locally, in order to obviate the costs of bringing electricity long distances from outside the basin. “Our view is that location is a very important factor. You’re avoiding significant transmission charges,” Bernhardt said. “In fact, these ‘shipping and handling charges’ range from 2-3 cents per kWh. That’s the advantage of consuming the energy where it’s created.”

Los Angeles’ proximity to recent solar superprojects that have come online in the Mojave and Sonora Deserts has allowed California to become the first state in the country to generate more than 5% of its total power from utility-grade solar. While impressive, for California to achieve any of its targets in clean energy, let alone solutions to its water and transport problems, its largest city will have to play a key role. That’s why utilizing solar resources where demand is highest is so important, as it avoids the systemic costs of importing energy. As Bernhardt explains, “Building and maintaining the transmission grid is incredibly expensive. So if LA is able to bring power online in-basin, that’s reducing future infrastructure investments to import out-of-basin power. Also, local generated energy avoids the very real energy losses from long-distance transmission, which in California can be as much as 7-10%.”

Clean LA’s Solar program has now neared its completion, however, as the remaining program capacity was opened to applications last month. “Based on what I’ve seen, the program is very likely to be extended by another 300 MW,” Bernhardt says. The new mayor of Los Angeles, meanwhile, is a huge proponent of clean energy, better transport solutions, and is a well-known bicyclist and cycling advocate. Mayor Garcetti has set ambitious solar targets for Los Angeles, and along with the Luskin Center and the LABC, has often spoken of a 600 MW target for feed-in-tariff solar in the basin.

There is no doubt an all-in, economic wager in such aggressive urban solar targets. Job creation in renewables is expanding rapidly on a national basis. As Clean Coalition’s Bernhardt points out, “For the City of Los Angeles to roll out a program like this, there’s a lot of economic upside, in terms of local job creation, and keeping energy expenditures close to home.”

Tackling Transport in Car Crazy LA

Over five years ago, as LA Metro began the next leg of its ascent, the agency—which has a flair for design and forward-looking policy—chose to install a 1.0 MW (megawatt) solar array on the roof of its enormous bus-repair facility on Lyon Street in downtown. In a lengthy email exchange with agency spokesman Rick Jager at LA Metro, and in conjunction with its Dept. of Environment Compliance Services, data shows the agency has now collectively deployed nearly 2 MW of solar across an array of assets in the LA Basin. For comparison, this is roughly equal to the nearly 2 MW of solar that Google has deployed across its sprawling Mountain View campus. The LA Metro solar program is the largest of its kind, in the nation.

Los Angeles Metro has been steadily building itself outward for over twenty years now, and the effects of its advancing spiral are finally starting to appear. Estimated daily train ridership in 2014, just on weekdays, was up to 351,853 per day on average, compared to 287,921 in 2009, a 17% increase in just the past five years, per LA Metro data. Every trip not taken by car of course shifts energy demand from petroleum to electricity. Miles traveled by car in Los Angeles, as in the rest of California, have peaked. According to the Federal Highway Administration, total miles driven daily in the LA-Long Beach-Santa Ana urbanized area declined from 275.6 million in 2008, to 262.8 million in 2013. But as oil consumption declines, demand for power rises.

LA Metro now collects savings from its own solar assets as well. In the same email exchange with the agency, TPM learned that LA Metro’s solar assets are expected to generate nearly 4 million KWh annually, for a savings of over a half a million dollars.

A Herculean Effort

To be sure, LA Metro’s electricity needs are enormous. According to the agency’s 2014 Energy and Resources Report, power required for electrical rail propulsion was 223 million KWh. However, this can be thought of as part of the downward pressure LA Metro is trying to exert, on oil-based transportation in the LA Basin. While a stubborn lump of automobile use remains in Southern California, the ascent of LA Metro has to be credited for part of the shift in new travel growth away from the freeways, and onto the grid.

Perhaps the true measure of LA’s transportation changes is that it’s now actually conceivable, though perhaps not easy, to live in the city without a car. While data is scant, according to the LA County Bike Coalition, cycling increased 7.5% from 2011 to 2013. The city has moved, albeit slowly, to create bike lanes. And LA Metro has made efforts to reach deeper into neighborhoods, by making easier bike access to its stations. Perhaps the biggest potential bikeway will come as part of the proposed restoration of the LA River, a multi-year mega projects now slowly underway.

Assuming that most will still want to utilize a car, however, Los Angeles is now the most fertile market for EVs in the state. According to “Driving the Spotlight” a November 2014 report from Next10, a nonprofit research outfit based in San Francisco, LA along with Orange County, doubled registrations of zero emissions vehicles (ZEV) in 2013 from the prior year, to 23,500 vehicles.

That probably sounds inconsequential, but the potential retirements from LA County’s flat-lined rolling stock of gasoline-powered automobiles—combined with sequential doublings of fast growth in EV sales—means that by the year 2020 roughly 3-5% of vehicles could be running on electricity. This does not count the number of natural-gas powered buses, taxis, and utility fleets now appearing in Southern California more generally. And again, new technologies growing fast from small bases always seem totally without impact—right before they start to overwhelm their markets. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, at their New York energy conference this April, noted that the price of batteries for EVs have fallen 60% since 2010 and are starting to decline as quickly as solar prices. With the stock of gasoline-powered vehicles mostly churning in cities like LA, all the real growth, therefore, is likey to come in EV’s or hybrids. Another driver of demand for electricity, instead of oil.

Halting the Growth of LA Smog

The pulse emanating from Los Angeles—even as it revives historic rail lines, spruces up districts from Echo Park to Downtown, and beats back the automobile—is one that reads of very slack growth in energy demand, however. The US has downshifted its oil demand by over 10% in the last decade, and has hardly seen electricity demand growth at all, in the same time period. Los Angeles is both partaking, and benefiting, from these trends however as air quality continues to improve. A USC children’s health study published in the March 2015 New England Journal of Medicine found that the lung function and development of Los Angeles teenagers studied during 2007-2011 was substantially more healthy, compared to the same age group in the 1990’s.

While it is hard to disaggregate all the various factors, LA’s smog problem has been improving for decades. A larger, more comprehensive study conducted by a team of scientists at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory and UC Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences found that air quality had improved greatly during the study’s focus time period, 1960-2010, primarily due to the advent of rigorous, vehicle-emission controls.

Ilana Pollack, lead author of the study who is now with the Atmospheric Science Department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, says that reducing emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from on-road motor vehicles was largely responsible for the air quality gains. “VOCs and nitrogen oxides (NOx) are the main ingredients, or precursors, for making air pollutants. The interaction of these precursors in the presence of sunlight initiates a chain of chemical reactions that produce pollutants such as ozone, a component of smog and a known respiratory irritant. Decreasing the abundance of one ingredient relative to the other can dramatically affect how much and how quickly ozone and other pollutants are made,” says Pollack. The study found significant reductions in both precursor emissions since the 1960s, but drastically larger reductions in VOCs. Faster reductions in VOCs changed the trajectory of LA’s pollution.

Los Angeles is lucky to have its sunshine. But its topography—surrounded by mountains and cooler air—exacerbates the problem known as inversion. Pollack notes that may have made for a unique opportunity to start solving the problem. “The LA Basin is like a bowl. Emissions, mainly from vehicles, get trapped in the bowl. When sunlight shines down on the bowl it initiates a chain of chemical reactions that transform precursor emissions into secondary pollutants. Laboratory experiments and computer models can closely simulate the chemical processes taking place inside the bowl. Scientists learned early on from these experiments that if they turn the knob down on just one of those precursor emissions, VOCs, then secondary pollutants like ozone would also be reduced.”

One phenomenon that may paradoxically allow Los Angeles to conduct energy transition, while continuing to restrain demand growth for energy, is the harvesting of negawatts. Those are the theoretical energy units saved from efficiency gains, changes in lifestyle, and the cost declines in new technologies that all add up to a sideways motion in total energy demand as the economy reorganizes itself. (The term was originally coined by Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute).

But energy savings are one accomplishment, and the type of energy we consume is an entirely different matter. For Los Angeles the sticky benchmark of progress remains the state of air quality, and that raises the question: can LA undertake a brand new round of smog reduction? And if so, how hard would that be? According to Pollack, some LA policy makers still strive for improvements in local air quality—now by tackling reductions in emissions of NOx and particulate matter from heavy-duty diesel-fuled vehicles. Pollack notes that “turning down the VOC knob was successful in reducing ozone and other pollutants in LA. It will be interesting to monitor the results of turning down the NOx knob.” Although the local pollution problem in Los Angeles has improved greatly so far, a broader concern remains. Will increasing background levels of pollutants, from national or international sources, rival local pollutant mitigation in the future?

The Challenge for Los Angeles: The Next Round of Gains

Since the financial crisis seven years ago, energy consumption in developed economies has relentlessly moved lower, as both urban and suburban populations have taken to bikes, light rail, and walkable neighborhoods. Americans now demand an ambitious greening of their cities. Access to rivers, bays, and harbors are now on the agenda of most urban planners. Meanwhile, it is no longer the goal of young people to own a car, or a house in a suburban neighborhood. What began as a price driven oil shock has now morphed into a long period of demand destruction, and the ascent of new cultural norms.

The US government, along with other nations, has decidedly gotten into the game on the policy front. The very substantial 30% investment tax credit offered by the federal government benefits players both big and small in solar. Along with the menu of other incentives—net metering (selling surplus power back to the grid), feed-in-tarrifs, and state and local credits—the renewable revolution has enjoyed a lot of support during a time of slower, economic growth. And if you wanted to be concerned about further swings from fossil fuels to renewables, there are ample reasons.

The federal investment tax credit is slated to drop down from 30% to 10% starting in 2017. In California, state incentives for solar through the California Solar Initiative are ending this year. Meanwhile, vehicle miles travelled in the US have started to recover, and gasoline consumption is back on the rise. While this does not represent a restoration of US motoring back to previous highs, it’s a reminder even slow population growth mixed in with cheaper gasoline prices will, given enough time, revive demand.

Put another way, because so much US infrastructure is still geared to the automobile, when small rebounds in growth do occur, there is still not enough new transport capacity to take the load. And that’s despite a lot of new electrical-powered transport across the US.

These trends could be observed in just about any city now. Boston, Seattle, and even several Southern cities in the US have funded the buildout of light rail, public transport, and renewable energy. But there is probably no better city to observe our current energy transition than in Los Angeles. LA has durably served as the global epicenter of post-war car culture for the past half century. Drive-in burgers, drag races, and cruising Hollywood Boulevard on a Saturday night (now banned) emanated like so many cultural tokens to the rest of America. While the total set of infrastructure transformations now underway in Los Angeles are potentially as massive, and as full of implication, as the original buildout of its famous freeways in the 1950’s, most of these will take years to complete.

For now, Los Angeles has appeared to put the brake on the growth of the automobile complex, and it’s heroically scrambling to add local power from clean energy. To obtain the next tranche of gains, however, the city may have to apply more radical surgery. This could include converting some boulevards to bike lanes, applying surcharges to owners of petrol-power automobiles, and adding more electrified bus-rapid-transit—a solution that’s worked well in Latin America. The challenge of energy transition eventually comes down to the cost of the built environment. It’s hard, politically and economically, to change over—or even abandon—legacy systems. Los Angeles is such a large, urban agglomeration that only the most aggressive pace of policy changes will maintain the city on its decidedly positive, current pathway.