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Community Activism Powers Energy Efficiency at LADWP

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IBEW Local 18 trainees on site.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s preliminary budget will come before the Los Angeles City Council today. There’s lots there to consider, from hundreds of millions of dollars for rebuilding local power plants and renewable energy to hundreds of millions more to replace an aging distribution system.

Buried in the budget is a piece of good news that deserves some recognition. The LADWP’s $88 million energy efficiency budget is looking more respectable than it has in the past and more on par with other utilities. Last year, the Department spent $50 million. This year’s budget is not quite where it should be, but it’s moving in the right direction.

That is due in large part to a campaign led by RePower LA, a citywide coalition of community groups, environmentalists, small businesses and IBEW Local 18 committed to expanding energy efficiency investment in a way that leads to career-path jobs, more services and environmental benefits. RePower LA is proposing an ambitious goal of reducing LADWP’s energy consumption 15 percent by 2020, up from its current anemic goal of 8.6 percent.

Energy efficiency has long been touted as a triple win solution that creates local jobs, savings for customers and environmental benefits. But it’s also been the first part of the LADWP budget to be cut. This year, residents from every part of Los Angeles have been energized around the issue by a series of town halls, community meetings and actions at LADWP Board meetings and in City Council. (The next Town Hall — co-sponsored by L.A. City Councilmember Ed Reyes, Urban Semillas, L.A. Conservation Corps, Goodwill Worksource Center and LAANE — is May 9, from 6 to 8 p.m., at 1400 North Spring Street.)

That excitement stems in no small part from RePower LA’s plan to link energy efficiency investment to career-path jobs, and to ensure that this investment helps not just the largest consumers of energy (like downtown office buildings) but small businesses, renters and lower-income customers who are struggling the most right now.

Such a plan makes sense at a time when 40 percent of Los Angeles residents are poor enough to qualify for some kind of public assistance, small businesses often face electric bills that rival their rent and unemployment exceeds 20 percent in many neighborhoods.

Last May, IBEW Local 18 partnered with the LADWP to launch an innovative 18-month training program that provides entry-level jobs to residents. These $16-an-hour positions provide a pathway to careers at a department where 40 percent of employees are at or near retirement age.

Under the RePower LA plan, a portion of energy efficiency work would be carried out by trainees, who are especially well-suited to helping customers such as small businesses that wouldn’t otherwise invest in making buildings more energy efficient. The trainees, under the supervision of trained journeymen, have already won plaudits for weatherizing the homes of 2,800 low-income residents under an $8.5 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant.

LADWP has had an up-and-down history with energy efficiency, making it difficult for customers to count on programs and making it extremely hard for the Department to plan. This is the case despite the fact that energy efficiency can save the utility money by reducing infrastructure costs. It’s also a miniscule portion of the overall budget. The proposed 2012-13 energy efficiency allocation accounts for less than half a percent of LADWP’s revenue requirement.

Let’s hope that the public attention on energy efficiency will help LADWP invest in a sustained way in an important resource that can help it move off dirty coal while keeping our bills low and creating much-needed job opportunities for L.A. residents.

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