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L.A. utility shelves plans for solar farm near Salton Sea

The Department of Water and Power's top executive says he is troubled by the costs of the 970-acre project. The City Council considers creating a ratepayer advocate.

December 16, 2009|By Phil Willon and David Zahniser

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power announced Tuesday that it has shelved plans for a 970-acre solar farm near the Salton Sea, just as members of the City Council signaled that they were unprepared to support the project.

The DWP's interim general manager, S. David Freeman, said he was troubled by the costs of the 55-megawatt project, which had been slated to go up on land purchased by the utility in 2006.

Freeman made his comments moments after Councilwoman Jan Perry, who heads the council's Energy and the Environment Committee, said she planned to send the solar project back to the DWP for more work.

Perry and several other council members said they also intend to move ahead -- despite Freeman's objections -- with plans for creating a new watchdog over the DWP.

"The public doesn't trust the Department of Water and Power," said Councilman Richard Alarcon. "They believe they are being overcharged."

The exchanges between Freeman and the committee showed the growing anxiety by council members over Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's ambitious renewable energy plans -- and the likelihood that those plans will lead to higher electricity bills.

Alarcon said the council was being "bombarded" by ratepayer complaints about DWP charges.

Perry and other members told DWP officials to provide detailed estimates on how the city's renewable energy proposals will affect ratepayers and bridle department spending before acting to increase electricity bills.

Councilman Tony Cardenas also complained that the DWP has repeatedly failed to lay out the true costs to ratepayers of the transition to solar, wind and other renewable sources of electricity.

"We have listened to presentation after presentation where the department has downplayed the renewable energy costs," he said.

Freeman agreed that there would be "serious upward pressure on rates" as the city weans itself off coal and natural gas, both of which are much less expensive than renewable power sources.

Still, he said renewable power would save ratepayers over the long haul because the energy supply is free.

California recently enacted an ambitious program to cap most of the state's greenhouse gases, including those from more than 600 power plants, Freeman said, and Congress probably will approve a "carbon tax" in the near future that discourages utilities and companies from using fossil fuels. Both are expected to drive up the cost of using coal, which also would increase electricity rates.

"The public is frightened. People are out of jobs. There is a jobless recovery. I understand that completely, and these elected public officials who are reacting to the views of their constituents," he said. "But we are moving toward renewables, and if we don't, we're going to get fined like hell."

Freeman also voiced objections to the idea of a ratepayer advocate, saying it would slow the utility's effort to move to renewable sources of energy.

He said the DWP's general manager already is responsible for ensuring that ratepayers are treated fairly, and should be fired if he "can't cut the mustard."

"In city government, it's hard to get anything done and there are all kinds of people who can say no," Freeman told the committee. "We're running a public business that requires action."

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.

The DWP solar farm near the Salton Sea, in the town of Niland, was set to become L.A's first foray into solar power generation.

But Freeman said he determined that transmitting electricity from Imperial County to Los Angeles would be too expensive since the DWP does not own power lines directly linking the two areas.

Instead, the DWP will continue to pursue plans to develop a massive solar facility on Owens Lake near Lone Pine in Central California.

phil.willon@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWillon

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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