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Mayor heads for an urban climate summit

Villaraigosa leaves for Copenhagen to confer with his peers and share L.A.'s challenges of going green.

December 12, 2009|By Phil Willon

As world leaders haggled to forge an international climate agreement this week in Copenhagen, the Los Angeles City Council was wrestling with the consequences of plopping a mammoth city solar farm near Lone Pine.


FOR THE RECORD:
Energy-efficient lights: An article in Saturday's Section A about Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's trip to the Copenhagen climate summit said that Los Angeles is installing energy-efficient LED bulbs in 14,000 city streetlights. It should have said 140,000. —

The proposed Northern California solar facility is critical to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's effort to wean the city off coal-fired power plants, but only if the project can survive a series of political cage matches with the council, environmental activists, state regulators and customers.

Lost in the limelight of sweeping proposals to cut greenhouse gas emissions or encourage more sustainable lifestyles -- whether coming from Denmark, Washington, the state capital or City Hall -- is the messy, perilous politics involved in enacting them in cities across the nation.

That's one of many messages that Villaraigosa will take to Copenhagen, where mayors from around the world are holding their own climate summit to discuss challenges faced by cities and local government. Villaraigosa leaves for Europe today for a weeklong trip that, along with the summit, will include stops in Germany and England to study their renewable and conservation programs and try to lure green technology companies to Los Angeles.

"We're on the front lines," Villaraigosa said. "In the end, the difference between what a mayor does and other state and federal leaders do is we actually have to do the groundwork of getting the public behind these initiatives."

Cost is often a central concern of many of the sustainability initiatives being pitched in cities, and that's been exacerbated even more by the economic downtown.

When Los Angeles adopted drought-related water restrictions earlier this year, raising prices for major water use to encourage conservation, council members were scorched by complaints.

Last week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg was forced to drop a plan calling for all buildings 50,000 square feet or larger to undergo mandatory energy efficiency audits because of fierce opposition by building owners.

"Local government is reality-based," said Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.

"It's right in people's faces. It actually affects what people do day to day," Cohen said.

In March, Los Angeles voters rejected a solar energy ballot measure known as Measure B, pushed heavily by Villaraigosa.

The initiative was hamstrung by fears that the project would increase electricity rates -- and utility bills -- and by accusations that it was concocted in a backroom deal with union leaders.

Measure B would have required the city Department of Water and Power to install 400 megawatts of solar panels by 2014, and all the work would have been performed by DWP employees represented by the electrical workers union.

"If it doesn't smell clean, then it definitely is going to go down in a bad economy," said Larry Kopald, a Los Angeles-based communications and marketing expert who works for many environmental organizations.

Regardless of that defeat, however, Kopald said Villaraigosa has delivered some major environmental successes.

He said Villaraigosa also showed that, along with the curses that come with local accountability, some benefits can be seen as well:

* A program to reduce pollution at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by phasing out older cargo trucks has reduced diesel emissions by 70% compared with levels in 2007, according to the mayors of both cities.

* Mandatory water restrictions in Los Angeles have reduced consumption by record numbers. Water use in the city was down 18.4% from June through October, the lowest rate of water use in 18 years.

* Los Angeles also is in the process of installing energy-efficient LED bulbs in the city's 14,000 streetlights, a $46-million program that will eventually save an average of $10 million a year in electricity costs.

In July, Villaraigosa vowed that the city would halt the use of coal-burning power plants by 2020 and -- that same year -- generate at least 40% of its energy from renewable resources, including solar, wind and geothermal power.

Villaraigosa also plans to announce an initiative early next year to have the city generate 1,280 megawatts from solar energy by 2020 -- a dramatic increase from the 14 megawatts the DWP currently produces.

S. David Freeman, the interim general manager of the DWP and the mayor's top environmental advisor, said all of those goal are within reach, but customers and some members of the City Council need to accept that it will come at a cost.

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