When it comes to smart energy policy, L.A. County won’t be left in the dark
When it comes to smart energy policy, L.A. County won’t be left in the dark
For the first time in nearly 20 years, state energy managers were forced to pull the plug on hundreds of thousands of Californians during a scorching heatwave over Labor Day weekend. The abrupt blackouts may have only lasted a few hours, but they rattled nerves of residents already shaken by persistent pandemic and uncertain economic times.
L.A. County residents are not immune from energy disruptions. But the good news is that the state has enough energy to meet demand. It just needs to do a better job of managing the grid.
Even better news: California is getting an increasing amount of power from renewable resources, which significantly reduces the harms associated with climate change. Here in Los Angeles, the Clean Power Alliance is taking hold. The locally operated electricity provider serves 3 million customers across 32 communities in Southern California with a systemwide average of 60% renewable energy with nearly a million customers receiving 100% renewable energy.
Here, the County’s Chief Sustainability Office answers questions about the blackouts and what the future of energy looks like in greater L.A.
Why has the power been going out this summer?
Power shutoffs are complex phenomena. They can happen for a variety of reasons, such as failing equipment or harsh weather. The culprit behind the recent Labor Day weekend outages was extreme heat. Torrid temperatures put California utilities on edge as projected demands teetered precipitously close to overtaking energy supply.
In these rare cases, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), the non-profit in charge of making sure that there is sufficient energy supply for the statewide energy demand, calls for rotating outages to reduce energy demand. CAISO keeps tabs on the grid every minute of every day and has a protocol in place when demand is projected to exceed available energy.
Energy imbalances are very rare. Rolling blackouts hadn’t occurred since 2008 and before that since 2001. Sometimes power outages are caused from failing energy infrastructure, like transmission lines coming down in a fire or transformers overheating. Sometimes, power is intentionally shut off during high winds by the local utilities to avoid creating additional fire risk, in a process known as Public Safety Power Shutoffs.
The energy insecurity events across the state and here in Los Angeles are a mix of these causes. (For details, check out the L.A. Times’ excellent reporting on the issue and this recent article on a possible cause for the events over the Labor Day weekend.)
High energy demand due to extreme heat is one of the driving forces behind blackouts. And just to be clear: climate change is fueling the record-breaking temperatures. Managers face a double whammy. Essentially, climate change is pushing the energy system to respond to growing demands for energy – be it pumping water from the Delta to Los Angeles, or powering millions of air-conditioning units during a heatwave. At the same time, utilities must figure out how to function in the face of climate change impacts that are already here, such as terrifying wildfires. It’s a steep order.
Is relying on fossil fuels the answer to meeting energy demand?
Using fossil fuels to respond to a situation caused by humans combusting fossil fuels will only make the problem worse over time—worse than the already bad situation we’re in. Many of the worst outcomes caused by climate change, like extreme heat, most directly impact people of color and low-income communities. Secondly, as we saw over Labor Day weekend, energy conservation is a powerful tool to help reduce demand on the rare occasion that the energy system is stretched to its limits. Residents and businesses responded well to the call to conserve energy that weekend, which meant that rotating outages were much less severe than had been expected.
Are the state’s clean energy goals to blame for power outages?
While the causes of the recent events are being investigated, it is clear that the shift to renewables isn’t the cause of power outages. (Nearly 20% of the state’s energy now comes reliably from solar sources alone.) The cause is at least in part due to a lack of planning at the statewide level for these increasingly likely extreme heat scenarios. More proactive planning would have dictated adding supply to correct for some sources being taken offline. Moreover, more concerted effort to tap into energy storage at businesses and to help residents reduce energy demand in times of need would help.
How does L.A. County fit in all this? What are our goals to reduce demands on the system?
To meet the County’s commitment to the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement, we are moving toward a zero-carbon energy system that quickly and drastically reduces our greenhouse gas emissions. We are working alongside many cities, counties, states, and nations around the world that aim to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. In doing so, we aim to protect our vulnerable populations, environment, and future generations.
By eliminating fossil fuel production in the County, including drilling, extraction, and refining, the County will also protect its residents from harmful local pollution that inequitably burdens workers, low-income communities, and communities of color.
Are the County’s clean energy goals unrealistic?
The County’s clean energy goals, as outlined in the OurCounty Sustainability Plan, are absolutely necessary to meet our commitment to address the root cause of extreme heat and increasing wildfire risk. We simply must stop the burning of fossil fuels that exacerbate climate change. These goals were established by the Board of Supervisors when it committed L.A. County to the Paris Climate Agreement. If we want to have a chance of addressing why these calamities occur in the first place, we must aggressively pursue clean energy along with a suite of broader climate actions. We cannot mitigate climate change alone, but showing leadership will help bring others along.
When paired with fast-acting storage, clean energy has already been shown to meet demand. As required by regulators, all energy utilities have to show that they have 15% more power in reserve than the projected demand each month. The Clean Power Alliance, which provides their customers a significantly higher share of clean energy than other utilities, has been able to meet this requirement every month. So the proof that clean energy can meet demand by strict regulatory standards is already out there.
What are the next concrete steps in helping the County meet these ambitious energy goals?
On October 1, the cities of Malibu and Sierra Madre will be the latest cities to move to 100% renewable energy through the Clean Power Alliance. They are just the latest in a growing number of cities that are getting a bigger share of renewable energy through the Clean Power Alliance. Several years back, the County established what is now the Clean Power Alliance, which achieves its mission by regional collaboration. It has achieved so much more than what the County initially envisioned by in helping to get renewable energy at affordable prices to residents and business across 32 cities in LA and Ventura counties.
What can the average resident do to help us become more energy-secure?
Conserving energy is a good idea at all times of the year. There are many programs available to help lower your energy needs both for renters, homeowners, and businesses. The Southern California Renewable Energy Network is a hub for information about many of these programs. Your energy utility will also have programs.
What lessons did we learn over Labor Day weekend about keeping the lights on in an increasingly hotter Los Angeles?
When considering public health, the full impacts of the extreme heat over Labor Day weekend is not fully known. Extreme heat increases energy demand and has severe public health impacts, leading to more emergency room visits, asthma attacks, increased likelihood of worker injuries, and more. We know that preparing for more frequent extreme heat events is essential.
Energy conservation took a big bite out of projected demand and limited the need for rotating outages, as did many companies who activated their on-site energy storage systems to reduce demand from the grid. One of the Clean Power Alliance’s energy conservation programs, called the Power Response Program, gives customers a way to get rewarded for conserving power when needed. That program and other energy conservation programs kicked into gear that weekend. We’ll need to continue and grow programs like that one.
We also learned that planning for energy supply is essential. That’s why the County, through its role in the Clean Power Alliance, is responsibly planning for the future by having invested in 12 new renewable energy plants that will generate over 1,100 megawatts (MW) of new renewable energy – enough to power roughly 475,000 homes in Los Angeles along with 493 MW of energy storage. These projects – which represent over $1 billion in capital investments – will create 2,300 good clean energy jobs. This is what the future of energy looks like.
A Deep Dive on L.A.’s Water Future
A Deep Dive on L.A.’s Water Future
“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” W.H Auden once wrote. Science tells us water makes up about roughly two-thirds of our bodies, about the same amount of Earth itself.
Whether you are a poet or a researcher, it’s clear that water is fundamental to our very existence. Without steady and reliable access to clean water, we die. That makes the liquid a central component of the County’s Sustainability Plan.
The challenge for greater L.A. is that we live in a semi-arid region of more than 11 million people. We have been forced to import nearly 60% of our water from thousands of miles away, at great cost and use of energy.
Here, Gary Gero, the County’s Chief Sustainability Officer, offers his take on how our region can become more water smart.
Where do we get most of our water from exactly?
Countywide, the majority of our water comes from far outside our region, either through the State Water Project from the Bay-Delta area, the Colorado River Aqueduct, or from the Los Angeles Aqueduct from the Owens Valley.
Why is importing water such a big deal? It seems to have worked fine for decades.
Three big reasons: 1) the State Water Project and the Colorado River Aqueduct use a tremendous amount of electricity to move that water and generating that electricity causes air and climate pollution, 2) the aqueducts cross many fault lines, including the San Andreas Fault, as they come to Los Angeles so water supplies could be severely disrupted in a major earthquake, and 3) climate change is changing weather patterns and scientists predict that more precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow making it unavailable when we need it.
What are your ideas for becoming more water independent?
The big idea is to reclaim the water that today gets tossed out into the ocean. We do a better job today of capturing a drop of water that falls 400 miles away in the Sierras than we do rain in the San Fernando Valley. We need to build the infrastructure to capture rainwater locally and – with the support of the voters – we are doing just that through the Safe Clean Water program. But, we also spend a lot of money and energy cleaning water at treatment plants only to send that water through a pipe 5 miles into the ocean. We should be using that water by putting it into the ground to supply local groundwater basins. This is why we have set a target of getting 80% of our water locally. It just makes sense.
Is it more about reducing the amount of water we use, or just being smarter about how we get it?
Both. These two strategies have to go hand in hand. But, the less we use, the less we need to import or find locally. The least expensive, most environmental drop of water we have is the one that we do not use.
L.A. has already done a pretty good job of cutting down on average daily use, but we still lag other water-challenged cities like Sydney and Jerusalem. How can we get it down even more?
Yes, we’ve done a good job with indoor water usage but we have a long way to go with outdoor water. We use way too much on our landscapes and need to find ways of reducing this outdoor water use by rethinking what our outdoor spaces should look like in our Mediterranean climate that is being impacted by climate change.
What happens if we DON’T act?
We could face water shortages as climate change reduces the amount of water we have.
How does water intersect with some of the other goals of the Plan? Pollution? Energy? Open space? Health?
We are fortunate that our water is generally safe to drink, but there are still many communities – and these are largely low -income areas and communities of color – who have water that may technically be safe but that nobody would drink or even use to bathe or wash dishes and clothes because it is brown and smelly. Water is critical to life and so we need to recognize it and treat it as the fundamental human right that it is.
Clean, abundant water is also necessary to support our local habitat and biodiversity, and to expand our urban tree canopy, which is one of our key goals in the plan. Unfortunately, most of our natural waters, such as streams and rivers, are impacted by pollution which not only threatens the health of people, but also the wildlife that depend on that water.
You read about terrible problems with lead in places like Flint. Can that happen here? Is access to clean and safe water in disadvantaged communities still an issue here in L.A.?
Our water is generally safe – which means that there are government standards to ensure it won’t make you sick. But, we still have problems in many communities with water that fails to meet so-called “secondary” standards for taste, color, and odor. It may not hurt you, but nobody would drink brown smelly water, nor would they want to brush their teeth with it, or bathe in it, or wash their clothes or dishes. Buying bottled water as an alternative is very expensive, especially in communities that are already facing high rents and barely getting by.
L.A voters taxed themselves to build these so-called “multi-benefit” water projects in the coming decade. What does that mean exactly?
What it means is that when we are building new infrastructure to capture and reuse stormwater we make sure that such projects also provide community benefits like new or improved parks and open space, trees and other urban greening, and even things like bike paths and other transportation projects like bus and transit stations. Making sure these things serve local communities and simultaneously provide water benefits is the promise that we made to taxpayers.
When will see some of these Measure W projects and how will they change the face of our neighborhoods?
The first set of proposed projects are now being evaluated and we hope that many can be under construction before the end of this year. Once these projects are completed, I think people will see neighborhoods that have less pavement and more trees, new parks, or just plants and other greening in what are otherwise unused small open spaces. In some cases though, the actual capture systems will be invisible to the public as they will go underground in large tanks or cisterns.
Is recycling of wastewater for in-home use really feasible? The idea was a political nonstarter in L.A. a generation ago. Have we moved beyond that?
Yes, not only is it feasible but it is already being done here in California and many places around the world. There is simply no good reason to spend so much time and money to clean water only to throw it away into the ocean. Look, we clean the water that comes in through the aqueducts or from groundwater aquifers to make it drinkable. We can use these same technologies to further clean the water that we now throw away to make it just as clean as the water we drink.
Are we really going to save money by doing all this? It sounds expensive to build all these new plants and what not.
Yes, these are very practical and cost-effective solutions, especially as compared to the alternative of continuing to import water as energy costs increase.
How can average person help meet our goals? Is turning off the tap while brushing your teeth REALLY going to make a difference?
Sure, everyone can pitch in by conserving water indoors, but most people are already pretty efficient, especially those who live in apartments and condos. So, the single most important thing that the average person can do is reduce their water usage outdoors if they have a yard. This means reducing or eliminating the need for sprinklers, making those water devices more efficient and smarter, and – honestly – changing out the plants to take out those that are thirsty, like lawns, and replacing them with more natural and native plants that are more appropriate to Los Angeles.
L.A. County to Take Big Bite Out of Plastic Pollution
L.A. County to Take Big Bite Out of Plastic Pollution
L.A.’s got a waste problem. A big one.
The numbers don’t lie:
- A. County creates about 28 million tons of solid waste each year, with the majority headed to our already taxed landfills. That’s enough trash to fill the Rose Bowl week in and week out for the entire year.
- Nearly 1 in 5 pieces of trash nationwide is a single-use plastic item.
- Less than 10% of all single-use plastics is recycled. That means tons of non-degradable plastics will hog our landfills for millennia and blight L.A. neighborhoods and oceans.
To get a better handle on what all this plastic pollution means for L.A. County and how to reduce it, the County’s Board of Supervisors directed the Chief Sustainability Office last year to commission a data-driven analysis from UCLA researchers. The survey focused on the food-service sector, one of the biggest culprits when it comes to pollution.
The report, issued this week by the university’s Center for Innovation in the Luskin School of Public Affairs, confirms what many experts in the waste area have long believed:
- Plastic waste creates serious environmental and economic damage to greater L.A.
- Food-service items have an outsized negative impact.
- Better recycling won’t solve the problem.
Here's one telling example from the Coastal Conservancy about the amount of single-use plastic food items in the waste stream. International Coastal Cleanup Day volunteers collected nearly 100 million pieces of trash last September from the world’s beaches in 24 hours. Plastic straws and cutlery were the third and fourth most frequently found items on the shoreline.
Fortunately, there are alternatives to polystyrene containers, cups, straws and “sporks.” Practical and cost-effective solutions are on hand, as the report makes abundantly clear.
Here, Gary Gero, the County’s Chief Sustainability Officer, offers his take on the report and what L.A. needs to do win the battle against the scourge of single-use plastics.
What surprised you about the UCLA Report?
There were a few things that were surprising. Although we all know that there are serious issues with plastics recycling, it was still surprising to hear how limited our plastics recycling is locally. That it’s really just #1 and #2 plastics that are commonly recycled, and food-serviceware is almost never recycled, regardless of the material. The report also highlighted the nuances related to different types of compostable materials. It’s important that if we push for different disposable products that we make sure we’re not creating new problems.
On the flip side, it was surprising and heartening to see the conclusions related to economic impacts of moving our businesses to more sustainable materials. The economic costs of switching away from single-use plastics still tend to be overstated, given changes in product availability and other factors. So it was good to see this confirmed, and that reusables can actually result in long-term cost savings.
How is the County responding? What are next steps for reducing plastic waste?
Well, we asked UCLA to do this study because the Board wanted us to use the results to design effective policy to tackle some of our single-use plastics issues, so that’s what we’ll be doing next. We’re looking at a measure later this year that will reduce the use of single-use, plastic food-serviceware. We need to do more to promote the use of reusables, start using more compostable materials, and make sure that what people do toss in the recycling bin is actually recyclable!
Why is this initiative focused on food-service ware?
Food-serviceware is one of the major applications for single-use plastics, and it’s also probably the type of single-use plastic that people encounter most frequently day-to-day. It’s also relatively easy to do something about it -- like bringing your own cups, straws and utensils when you dine at a fast-service type of restaurant. Tackling serviceware won’t solve all our problems related to single-use plastic. But it will make a significant dent, and hopefully will get people to think about the impact their choices have on this issue.
Plastics isn’t just about blight and taxpayer dollars, there’s a big tie to climate, right?
Yes, absolutely. Though to start off, the blight and taxpayer dollars are no joke. L.A. County spends millions of dollars a year on litter prevention, cleanup, and education. And as the UCLA report highlights, it’s likely that the County and ratepayers will be shouldering millions of dollars in added costs because of changes in the recycling market since 2018. We are no longer able to export our plastic waste to places like China, so now there’s a very significant cost in dealing with it.
As far as climate goes though, plastics are made from fossil fuels. And it’s been estimated that by 2050, plastic production will account for 20% of all fossil fuel consumption, so reducing our reliance on plastics has to be a major part of any strategy to address climate change. And, we’ve accelerated the rate at which we produce plastic. In fact, more than half of all the plastic ever produced has been produced in the last 15 years and a half of that is for things that are only used only once, like most foodware.
We need to get real with ourselves about the impacts of the convenience culture we all live in. The fact is that many of these products didn’t exist a few decades ago, and we now have a system that makes it incredibly difficult for people to choose to live sustainably. It’s important that people have choices, but we also want to make sure that they actually have good choices.
How do we help mom-and-pop restaurants and vendors prepare for this change? Do real-world alternatives really exist when I’m at my local taco stand?
Yes, we’re lucky to live in a thriving region where there are many different options available to restaurants. As the UCLA report puts it, the L.A. market for alternative materials like compostables is “consumer-favorable with regards to prices.” In other words, there are options that are very comparable in price, in some cases cheaper, than traditional materials like polystyrene.
There are many ways to help support mom-and-pop shops make this transition. For one, by making sure that businesses truly understand any policy we put in place and that there isn’t misinformation out there about what we’re requiring. We also want to make sure we allow ample time for any transition, and opportunities to request exemptions in cases of real hardship. We’ll also ensure that there are robust education and outreach efforts in place. And when a new policy is in place and enforceable, the focus will be working with individual restaurants to get them into compliance rather than any punitive measures.
How can the County move the needle when it comes to smarter waste policies?
We’re very proud of the leadership role that the County played in the passage of the statewide plastic bag ban in 2016. In terms of waste more generally, we want to partner with the other cities in our region to work towards consistency in how our region manages its waste. This would be a benefit to everyone: cities, residents, and businesses. Given the size of L.A. County’s $20 billion economy, we’re also hoping that what we do here sends a signal to businesses that we’re interested in more sustainable products and spurs innovation to meet those goals.
How does smarter waste management intersect with other goals of the plan?
Waste management is ultimately about how we use resources in general. When you think about it, almost all our pollution problems are ultimately resource management problems, the result of not thinking holistically about the entire life cycle of a product. We need to stop thinking about waste in a vacuum and start looking upstream to how it became waste in the first place. What materials were used, how they were put together, where they were made, and what other resources were used to make them and get them to our homes.
How does L.A. do overall when it comes to recycling? Is better recycling an answer?
There’s always more that we can do in terms of recycling, and part of that is making sure that single-use materials, materials that are meant to be tossed almost immediately, are actually recyclable. We also need more clarity for residents and businesses on what can and can’t be recycled. That said, while recycling is certainly part of the answer, recycling is never going to solve our waste issues. We need to reduce our waste overall and look at the use of compostable materials as well.
What can average person do in their home or business to help meet your ambitious waste goals?
One of the most important things people can do is think about how to reduce the amount of waste they create on a daily basis. Commit to carrying reusables with you, even it’s just cutting one single-use product out of your life, whether it’s a coffee cup, water bottle, straw, or utensils. Try to be aware of the amount of packaging on the products you purchase. Finally, be conscious of your food waste – buy what you can eat and eat what you buy. This will not only reduce food waste, but also your grocery bills!
New Year’s Resolutions We Must Keep
New Year’s Resolutions We Must Keep
Gary Gero, the County’s Chief Sustainability Officer, makes eight vows to improve quality of life throughout greater L.A.
January 12, 2020
With the coming of the New Year, many of us vow to make a fresh start, turn a corner or renew a forgotten commitment. After an indulgent holiday season, we make resolutions to live more wisely – whether it’s cutting down on sweets or putting money into savings.
Greater Los Angeles is on the cusp of a similar transformation, with an ambitious plan that enables people to step back and take a breath of fresh air – literally.
After considerable community engagement, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors last fall adopted the nation’s most ambitious regional sustainability plan, called OurCounty L.A. My team at the Chief Sustainability Office conducted hundreds of community workshops to develop the guidelines, which contain dozens of recommendations for improving quality of life throughout our region.
A new decade is the time to tackle many of our region’s most intractable problems, from air pollution that sickens our children to a crisis of inequality that leaves nearly 60,000 people sleeping on the streets each night.
The detailed roadmap envisions streets and parks that are accessible, safe, and welcoming to everyone; air, water, and soil that are clean and healthy; affordable housing that enables all residents to thrive in place; and a just economy that runs on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels.
OurCounty L.A. is no visioning exercise. It lists a dozen overarching goals and 159 action items. As we embark on 2020, we are committed to the following eight resolutions.
Making Los Angeles County 100% fossil-fuel free by 2050. We’re architecting a zero-emission energy and transportation system that will result in full carbon neutrality. That means phasing fossil-fuels out of our buildings, eliminating dirty fossil-fueled vehicles from roadways, and developing a “sunset” strategy for all oil and gas operations that protects workers and their families.
Sourcing 80% of water locally by 2045. L.A. now imports nearly 60% of its water, which requires enormous amounts of energy and money. We can flip that wasteful ratio through increased conservation, wastewater recycling, stormwater capture and aquifer cleanup.
Building more than 500,000 affordable housing units by 2045. To prevent the displacement of low-income households across the County, we need at least a half-million new affordable homes. To help ease the affordability crisis, planners are drafting an inclusionary ordinance that incentivizes the construction of mixed-income housing.
Diverting more than 95% of waste from already-taxed landfills. We need to build infrastructure that gets food and yard waste out of landfills. We need to fundamentally re-think our use of plastics and other items that actually aren’t recyclable regardless of what their packaging says.
Decreasing childhood asthma prevalence to 5%. Beyond larger emission-reducing initiatives, the County commits to more protective siting of parks, schools and homes from freeways, refineries and other sources of air pollution.
Demanding that 100% of rivers, lakes and the ocean meet federal water-quality standards. Thanks to voters, the newly enacted Measure W will fund the building of green space and other natural solutions to capture, clean and reuse billions of gallons of runoff before they can pollute our waterways.
Ensuring that 50% of all trips will be by foot, bike, micromobility or public transit by 2045. Some 90% of commute trips are taken in automobiles, creating air pollution, dangerous streets and maddening gridlock. To improve quality of life and reduce harmful emissions, we will build dedicated bus and bike lanes, focus new housing development in areas within a half-mile of high-frequency transit, and create policies that prioritize people over cars.
Making our communities safer in the face of the climate crisis. We are implementing strategies to cool our communities with shade and lighter colored surfaces, limiting new housing development in areas prone to wildfire, and preparing actively for rising seas and inland flooding.
The County is already taking concrete action to further these goals. We are readying an ordinance that would limit single-use plastic food and service-ware in unincorporated areas of the County, which are home to more than 1 million people. A proposed measure will help decarbonize buildings by phasing out emission-causing natural gas in new construction. We will also require builders to maximize on-site water reductions and support off-site water conservation to reduce the amount of water used by new developments to zero.
Environmental problems don’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries. The County’s 88 cities, large and small, must work collaboratively to secure a better future. In the coming year, we ask you to consider what you can do to support this vision. What steps can you take to reduce your energy use, water use or waste? Make these steps a part of your daily life -- be it taking public transit more often or redoubling conservation efforts.
New Year resolutions are far easier made than kept. Only 25% of people actually stick to them after just one month, according to studies. But some vows simply must be kept. These sustainability initiatives are achievable. We can and will do this together.