Los Angeles Voters Reject Solar Initiative

Published May 1, 2009

In a surprising blow to environmental activists and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, Los Angeles voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have required the city to install 400 megawatts of solar panels by 2014.

Powerful Supporters, Big Money

Just weeks before the March 3 election, the solar initiative, known as Measure B, seemed all but certain to succeed. It had the backing of the mayor, the city council, and the union representing Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) workers, who would install the solar panels.

National environmental activist groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, League of Conservation Voters, and American Lung Association, had all come out strongly in favor of the measure. Proponents spent more than $1 million on television advertising alone. Opponents of the measure spent less than $2,000 to fight it.

Grassroots Opposition Too Strong

Late opposition arose from community groups and good-government watchdogs, and the Los Angeles Times, among other area newspapers, editorialized for a no vote.

Community activists organizing on Facebook, Twitter, and other new media channels prevailed against what they characterized as a boondoggle.

The opposition took offense at the secretive manner in which the initiative was drafted, and they also focused on the high cost of solar power.

Stephen Box, leader of the opposition campaign, told the Los Angeles Daily Breeze for a March 7 story, “We all want solar, we all support renewable energy. We just wanted a seat at the table, to be involved in the decision. If we’re going to have workers trooping across our roofs, we want to know what they are doing—and what it will cost.”

Union, Political Power Grabs

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vowed to continue pursuing solar power implementation, expressing hope a more transparently drafted initiative might gain future public support.

Before the current effort, DWP had promised to bring more solar power to the city, but the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) had stymied such efforts because it was not guaranteed exclusive control of installing and operating the solar arrays. Measure B, written by IBEW, guaranteed only IBEW members would be allowed to install the thousands of acres of rooftop solar panels required to generate 400 megawatts of power.

Government watchdogs and consumer advocates argued there was no reason other than politics for Measure B to exclude competitive bidding from private contractors.

Measure B had other provisions that troubled its opponents. Among them, the measure did not mandate 400 megawatts of solar power actually be installed, only that DWP create a plan. The city council could then approve whatever plan DWP formulated, regardless of the costs or effectiveness, while taking political cover behind DWP.

This caused the Los Angeles Times to opine the plan was simply a power grab by the city council, as it would remove oversight authority from a relatively politically independent five-member commission and give the power to itself without any accountability for its subsequent choices.

Billions More Expensive

Opponents also strongly questioned the project’s costs. Solar power is the most expensive form of electricity produced in California, at 45 cents per kilowatt hour, compared to 2 cents per kwh for coal power.

According to DWP’s estimate, under Measure B 400 new megawatts of solar power could be brought online at a cost of approximately $1.5 billion, but an independent analysis commissioned by DWP calculated the costs at more than $3.6 billion.

The independent report stated the project was “extremely risky” from a cost perspective and would likely produce only 20 percent of DWP’s desired capacity. Even DWP admitted solar power would raise electricity costs 300 to 400 percent above the cost of coal power.

“Measure B’s defeat was a win for Los Angeles’s rate payers,” said Adam Summers, a policy analyst for the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. “The measure was one of those things that sounds good, but the measure itself was vague, poorly crafted, and destined to cost rate payers more while not delivering on its promises.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis.