Can We Find Common Sense in Los Angeles ?

This week I wrote an essay for the Inyo Register, about how common sense tells us that Los Angeles should integrate solar energy into its city landscape rather than panel over swaths of the Owens Valley. (Here’s the link: The Department of Water and Power isn’t saying if they’ve even considered that common sense solution. So just what is the logic for installing panels 200 miles distant from a famously sunny metropolis?

From the point of view of LA’s Dept. of Water and Power, the ratepayers of Los Angeles should benefit from the Department’s purchase of the Owens Valley land 100 years ago. They already own the Owens Valley land, and the Department’s mandate is to provide power to their ratepayers using their capital in the most financially efficient way they can. If they were to “go shopping” for solar panel space in Los Angeles, they’d have to enter into discussions and negotiations with landowners, be they private homeowners or mall and parking lot owners, maybe CalTrans…. This is understandably a complicated idea, and it’s possible that the utility would be pressed to pay for the right to erect solar collectors. From DWP’s perspective, why should they bother negotiating for installation space when they did their shopping 100 years ago?

The problem gets to the root of how we operate as a civilization. For ratepayers, electricity comes from switches, water from faucets, and as long as you pay your bills it all works great. In the same way, land in our system comes from acquisition. It’s acquired capital. DWP has an impressive portfolio, and they’re operating like a private capital group developing their investments. All well and good, except that they’re not a business working within a market, they’re a monopoly public utility with powers tied to public mandates and elected officials.

The second and even grander conflict is that, just as water comes from the earth and sky not faucets and electricity comes from natural energy sources not switches, land originates not as capital but as a fact of creation. We can mandate all the private property assertions we want, but not even DWP can create land, and when big swaths of land that people love and that plants and animals live on is proposed to be paneled over we all have a stake we can feel. Our freedom-loving brains and our ownership laws say that landowners have the right to develop their deeded land as they see fit. Yet our hearts know, for instance, that all Californians have a stake in how big swaths of the Eastern Sierra are managed. From neighborhood CC&R’s to the Mono Lake public trust decision (and of course so much more), we have passed laws that bring public interest to bear on private capital rights. When there’s lots of money, land, and water at play, we can expect big arguments. The people of Los Angeles and their city council need to hear the arguments here.

In this case, it seems clear that DWP is trying to get around even discussing the broader public values in their holdings on the Owens Valley floor. From their perspective as a capital-enhancing utility, ratepayers are simply bill-payers and land is simply capital. But in their role as a public agency accountable to elected officials there’s inherent complexity. There’s voters. I bet if you put the question before the Los Angeles voters, should they carpet-panel the Owens Valley or should they approach landowners—especially owners of big, baking parking lots—and offer to cover even parts of their lots with super-green and cool-looking solar panels that shade their cars, people would vote for the latter. Would it cost more? We don’t know because the Department hasn’t disclosed if they’ve even asked the question. But the fact that they’ve offered to pay our disturbingly pliable Inyo County to not sue over this case makes it clear they’d like to play the game like a private capital group, keeping their supposedly public decision-making cards to themselves.

Here’s my suggestion: that the LA City Council come up with legislation to generate and enhance the civic will to integrate solar panels into the city’s amply sunny landscape. Sure there’d be negotiations. But should a mall owner be compensated for allowing solar panels to go up over their property, or should the city be compensated for providing shade and a genuinely green and civic image enhancement? This could be an even trade. Trader Joe’s for instance ought to jump at the opportunity to enhance their creds and the comfort of their customers. Compare whatever compensation costs against the transmission loss, power line costs, and compensation bribes inherent in the Owens Valley installation and let’s see. The State’s mandate to include more renewable energy is an opportunity to make the original Sunbelt city a place that over-sunned cities all over the world will look up to. We need leadership to create a city where people and institutions actually talk to each other to accomplish mutual goals, including giving due respect to their hinterland properties.