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LA and Energy Efficiency: Less Is Way More

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That was the unlikely message to emerge from a series of town halls that have been held around the city over the last few months hosted by RePower LA, a new citywide coalition. From East and South L.A. to the Valley and the Westside, environmentalists, business owners and young people in need of jobs have sung the praises of energy efficiency.

Why the commotion? It’s over the promise and potential of making the LADWP, the nation’s largest municipally owned utility, a leader in energy efficiency. Energy efficiency programs can keep our bills low, saving businesses and residents hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. They also provide local jobs. And they can help wean us off our reliance on dirty energy sources that pollute our air and threaten our health.

Thousands of Los Angeles residents and businesses want the LADWP to invest in a sustained manner in programs that make our homes and businesses more energy efficient and create good jobs, according to recent surveys by RePower LA coalition members SCOPE and ICON CDC. Ron Nichols, the new general manager at the LADWP, couldn’t agree more.  He and his top manager have been actively engaging the RePower LA Coalition.  He’s attended all the town halls and at one of them he described energy efficiency as “our number one priority.”

Yet the LADWP has historically underinvested in energy efficiency programs and its current goal – to reduce consumption 8.5 percent by 2020 – does not meet state standards, nor does it keep pace with projected population growth. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which is also a public utility, has a goal of saving 15 percent by 2020. RePower LA would like to see the LADWP commit to saving 15 percent by 2020 as well.

Nobody is happy about this state of affairs. Not Ron Nichols. Not the LADWP Board, which resignedly approved the 8.5 percent goal at last month’s board meeting, promising to revisit it. Not Mayor Villaraigosa or the Los Angeles City Council.  State Senator Alex Padilla, chair of the state’s Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, held a hearing last month that focused, in part, on LADWP’s up-and-down investment in energy efficiency programs. The LADWP Board promises to do more once a rate increase is in place.

But the crux of the problem is that the LADWP has not treated energy efficiency as the resource it is. Not only does it help customers, but well-designed programs can also save the utility money on power generation costs. This is especially true when energy consumption is reduced at times of peak demand.  Measures that make air conditioning more efficient (or less necessary) make sense for our buildings and for our homes. They also make sense for the utilities that must build out their infrastructure to accommodate the 100 hottest hours of the year. Translation:  More energy efficiency means fewer power plants. By the way, energy efficiency programs cost 43 percent less than gas-fired generation and 67 percent less than renewables.

If the LADWP is behind the curve on energy efficiency investment, it’s actually ahead of the curve on the jobs part of the puzzle. Energy efficiency programs create jobs, to be sure.  But there is no guarantee that those jobs are good jobs, that workers are well trained and that the jobs go to L.A. residents who need them most. Poor installation can severely hamper the effectiveness of energy efficiency measures. Some energy efficiency programs, like rebates, subsidize overseas manufacturing. With such high unemployment rates, we need to do what we can to ensure that programs to green the utility also benefit our communities.

Last spring, the LADWP worked with IBEW Local 18, city leaders and RePower LA to launch a new 18-month training program for entry-level workers, which is serving as a pipeline to jobs at the utility, where 30 percent to 40 percent of workers are at retirement age. Los Angeles residents hired under the Utility Pre-Craft Trainee (UPCT) program do not need to pass the civil service exam (which can often be a barrier) to earn $16 per hour plus benefits. The LADWP has put these trainees to work weatherizing the homes of low-income residents under a federal recovery act grant.

The program has allowed the LADWP to gain the experience and skills necessary to do energy efficiency work. Programs that involve the direct installation of energy efficiency measures benefit the utility, customers and the environment – and can reach apartment dwellers, small businesses and others who cannot afford energy efficiency programs on their own.  A balanced portfolio of programs that targets these hard-to-reach customers, as well as big electricity consumers like commercial office buildings, makes a lot of sense. The LADWP is beginning to recognize the benefit of this approach.  The utility needs a trained workforce and savings it can count on.  Communities need jobs and see the opportunity for real careers. And with 1.4 million customers, there is plenty of work to be done in the coming years – neighborhood by neighborhood, business district by business district, industry by industry.

At the RePower LA town hall in East L.A., residents advocated for a policy to ensure that the LADWP achieves the 15 percent goal with smart programs that create good jobs and that build on the UPCT experience. For all the talk of “green jobs,” community members are wary of vague promises of jobs that may only be temporary or not available to the people who need them most. The LADWP, together with IBEW Local 18, has been a leader in creating a jobs pipeline that is transparent and that leads to real careers. RePower LA would like to see the UPCT program sized to the workforce needs of the utility and wants to ensure that private sector jobs created through energy efficiency meet high standards of quality and access.

A study commissioned by RePower LA projects that such a policy could provide jobs for 1,600 people by 2016 while saving customers more than $500 million and reducing carbon dioxide pollution by 2.5 metric tons over the lifetime of the measures. That’s equivalent to taking 500,000 cars off the road for an entire year. RePower LA’s policy initiative is a win for the community, a win for the environment, a win for businesses and a win for the utility. That’s too many wins for the LADWP and the city to pass up.

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