Bill Boyarsky
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The solar March 3 ballot measure: good for L.A.

Don’t explain. Don’t ask permission. And don’t apologize.

Following those simple precepts, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and its powerful employees union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, have rolled over generations of politicians and anyone else in their way.

Now, according to critics of Proposition B on the March 3 ballot, the killer DWP-IBEW team is at it again. The measure would authorize the department to install solar panels on commercial, industrial and other buildings and in parking lots. The power would flow into the DPW system, where it would supplement power from fossil fuel plants and a nuclear facility. IBEW workers would install the panels and the many new employees needed for the installations would boost the union membership. The panels would generate 400 megawatts of power by 2014. A megawatt is a million watts. If that’s hard to visualize, think of a 100-watt light bulb and multiply.

In the green world we’re seeking, wouldn’t it be a good idea to light all these bulbs with solar power? Proposition B’s critics don’t think so. They claim the IBEW bullied the Los Angeles City Council into putting Proposition B on the ballot without study or in- depth hearings. Solar may be good, say the critics, but the process stinks. Proposition B, they say, made it to the ballot through secret government and a complaisant council. They also say Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a puppet manipulated by Brian D’Arcy, the president of IBEW Local 34.

Although I don’t share the critics’ fevered emotions—or even their opposition to the plan—I am interested in the dispute. So I arranged with Sarah Leonard, a Proposition B media person, to meet with S. David Freeman, former Department of Water general manager, now president of the Board of Harbor Commissioners and one of the big supporters of Proposition B.

I asked him where the idea behind the proposition originated. “It was Chapter 11 of my book ‘Energy Independence and Public Power,’ he said. “I sold it to Brian and I put it in the heads of people in the mayor’s office.”
How would it work? The department would put out bids for the solar equipment. The solar panels would have to be assembled in Los Angeles, although components could be made other countries. “Manufacturing of electrical equipment is done all over the world,” he said. “We don’t make the turbines for the coal and gas fired plants in Los Angeles.”

Among the sites to be picked for solar installation, he explained, would be areas where the power network is weak, ”where they have the most trouble.” What about rate increases? He said he didn’t think the solar measure itself “will have any impact on what the average Angeleno pays for electricity.” But there could be rate increases in any case because the city would still rely heavily on fossil fuel for its power plants. Of course he doesn’t really know. As the Times said in an editorial, nobody knows if rates will rise if Proposition B passes: “There are too many variables—just as there are too many variables to let voters know how much rates will rise without Proposition B.” The uncertainty over the financing was pointed up last week when Rick Orlov reported in the Daily News that a draft DWP audit said installation of the panels could cost more than double of the current estimate of $1.5 billion.

As far as the process that put Proposition B on the ballot, Freeman thinks there’s been enough public airing of the measure, especially compared to what DWP has done in the past. “They stole all the God damn water from the Owens Valley and nobody knew about it,” he said.

Despite all the questions, I think Proposition B is a good plan. Solar is perfect for sunny L.A. Green industry is the wave of the future. It’s smart to have our public power utility do the work instead of a variety of private contractors. It’s good that DWP union workers will do the installations. We need more union jobs, which strengthen the economy by expanding the middle class.

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