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Billions to Spend: Part 6

Grand dream loses sheen in glare of daylight

L.A. community colleges' green energy plan proves wildly impractical. The blunders cost taxpayers $10 million.

March 06, 2011|By Michael Finnegan and Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times

Larry Eisenberg had a vision. "Amazing," he called it. "Spectacular."

The Los Angeles Community College District would become a paragon of clean energy. By generating solar, wind and geothermal power, the district would supply all its electricity needs. Not only would the nine colleges sever ties to the grid, saving millions of dollars a year, they would make money by selling surplus power. Thanks to state and federal subsidies, construction of the green energy projects would cost nothing upfront.

Billions to Spend: Complete Coverage

As head of a $5.7-billion, taxpayer-funded program to rebuild the college campuses, Eisenberg commanded attention. But his plan for energy independence was seriously flawed.

He overestimated how much power the colleges could generate. He underestimated the cost. And he poured millions of dollars into designs for projects that proved so impractical or unpopular they were never built.

These and other blunders cost nearly $10 million that could have paid for new classrooms, laboratories and other college facilities, a Times investigation found.

The problems with Eisenberg's energy vision were fundamental. For starters, there simply wasn't room on the campuses for all the generating equipment required to become self-sufficient. Some of the colleges wouldn't come close to that goal even if solar panels, wind turbines and other devices were wedged into every available space.

Going off the grid did not make economic sense either. Given the cost of alternative energy technology, it would be more expensive for the district to generate all its own electricity than to continue paying utilities for power.

Weather and geology also refused to cooperate.

Three solar power arrays had to be scrapped because the intended locations were atop seismic faults.

Plans for large-scale wind power collided with the reality that prevailing winds at nearly all the campuses are too weak to generate much electricity. To date, a single wind turbine has been installed, as a demonstration project. It spins too slowly in average winds to power a 60-watt light bulb.

In the end, Eisenberg's grand plan was scaled down to what was actually doable, which was a fraction of the green energy capacity he had envisioned.

By then, the district had committed at least $4 million to designs for solar and wind energy farms that would never get beyond blueprints.

As one project after another was scratched, an elaborate plan to pay for it all with money from private investors fell apart. But the investment banks that put the deals together had to be paid for their work. The cost: $2.8 million.

At Southwest College, the district spent an additional $1.2 million on a parking lot shaded by solar panels, only to abandon the project with the work half done.

At Valley College, one of the solar arrays that was actually built sat idle for 14 months, thanks to a dispute between a contractor and the district over who was supposed to arrange a hookup to the power grid. The delay cost $1.5 million in potential energy savings, according to the college.

Eisenberg, the district's executive director of facilities planning and development, conceded some mistakes but voiced no regrets. He cast himself as an environmental visionary and predicted that the college system would eventually achieve energy independence. "Somebody needs to be first," he said. "If the great explorers really had a map and knew where they were going, maybe we wouldn't have the result we have today."

Unyielding enthusiasm

Eisenberg, now 59, grew up in Sun Valley, the son of a TV repairman and a secretary for the probation department. He was student body president of North Hollywood High School and became the first member of his family to attend college. He earned a bachelor's degree in urban studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a master's in public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

After a succession of jobs managing public buildings in Wisconsin, Eisenberg was hired in 1993 as facilities chief for Washington County, Ore., which encompasses suburbs of Portland.

In 1995, he and his wife, Christine, filed for personal bankruptcy, listing assets of $236,000 and liabilities of $262,000. Most of the debt, aside from their home loan, was to credit-card companies; they also owed $21,000 in back taxes. The bankruptcy case was closed after the couple completed a payment plan in 1999.

Eisenberg ran into difficulties at his job as well.

His boss, Bob Davis, "wanted to get rid of Larry because of mismanagement," Washington County Commissioner Andy Duyck said in an interview. Duyck said he did not know the reason for Davis' displeasure, and Davis, the county administrator, declined to comment.

Eisenberg recalled that Davis "let me know he was unhappy" with his job performance. He depicted it as a clash of management styles: Davis' was conservative, while his own was creative and entrepreneurial, Eisenberg said.

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