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Los Angeles needs to leave a rural valley alone


If we’re going to limit the coming climate change impacts, we surely need to harness a lot of solar electricity. But proposals from Los Angeles to spread four square miles of solar panels across rural Owens Valley have local people saying: “Whoa! Doesn’t the sun shine in L.A.?”

Los Angeles’s Department of Water and Power says it wants to collect 338 megawatts of electricity from two adjacent arrays. One would be its own Southern Owens Valley Solar Ranch, while the other would be built by Northland Power to sell to L.A.’s transmission lines.

L.A.’s water-colonizing presence shadows everything in Owens Valley, and since the city owns 80 percent of the valley — some 500 square miles — “solar ranching” would compound its water takeover. The city’s utility pays no local taxes, and conventional legal opinion says it doesn’t even need a local permit. But in case the deal might need sweetening, L.A. has offered Inyo County $4.6 million in exchange for not challenging its Solar Ranch proposal.

Inyo County amplified locals’ fears of “carpet paneling” by agreeing to that payment, and then proposing to designate great swaths of Owens, Saline and Panamint valleys as “Renewable Energy Development Areas.” At public meetings, people from Inyo and L.A. alike — from Indians to cowboys to sagebrush huggers to dirt-bikers — protested 40-to-1 against all of these proposals.

The two active proposals would stretch out across the highway from the Manzanar National Historic Site, and Japanese-American WWII internees and descendants are politely livid about their impact. They want Manzanar’s legacy of natural vastness preserved. Carpet-paneling so much land can be characterized as neo-scorched earth: Waterfowl mistake the shine of panels for water, dust sweeps up from the scraped ground and it’s no longer habitat for anything.

The truth is, many people love the Owens Valley the way it is, and ironically that’s possible because L.A.’s water grab inadvertently saved the land from development. Paiutes still recognize their ancestral territory, and residents and visitors can share quiet canals with cattle and cottonwoods beneath the snowy Sierra and Inyo ranges. The writer Mary Austin may have left the valley in disgust after L.A.’s water grab, but history came down even harder elsewhere. Today, bird migrations, lease-ranching and open recreation still foster the hopes that ride on a fairly intact landscape.

The bottom line is that Los Angeles can gather plenty of sunshine at home. Studies by the University of California at Los Angeles and the L.A. Business Council indicate how city rooftops could collect 5,500 megawatts. Across the city and county, rooftops could harvest enough sunlight to power half of California.

Michael Webster, the city’s chief power planner, counters that L.A. can’t handle more than 760 megawatts of in-city solar, less than 4 percent of its needs. He says that clouds, night, a grid designed for import and uncontrolled power from “across the meter” could send the system on “a wild ride.”

But Lawrence Laboratory showed that, compared to a concentrated array, a solar network spread across a 465-square-mile city is freer from cloud loss. And sending power across 200 miles of transmission lines dissipates juice -- up to 14 percent. These “extension cords” can also be catastrophically vulnerable, which is why regulators want to become less dependent on them.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ power department’s neighbor, Southern California Edison, has been actively integrating local solar into its grid since 2008. It has been partnering to lease space from commercial properties, investing in battery storage, and tinkering circuits to allow for remote control of bi-directional flow. The utility says it relishes how solar generation peaks during peak demand. In fact, a dozen American cities utilize more solar per capita than L.A., and a detailed manifesto for the Bay Area aims for almost three times as much as what L.A.’s utility says is limiting.

Bill Powers, a leading California energy consultant and former utility engineer for the Navy, has coordinated extensive plans to bring the levels of greenhouse gases produced by San Diego, L.A., and the Bay Area to well below California mandates. He estimates that, as it stands, L.A.’s grid could handle 2,000 megawatts of local solar.

L.A.’s new mayor, Eric Garcetti, ran for office with an agenda of reforming the foot-dragging Department of Water and Power, and he won despite the millions of dollars that the utility’s union spent to defeat him. Now, the mayor wants the agency to amp up its local solar output to 1,200 megawatts. And here in Inyo County, elected representatives heeded their constituents’ outcry and have now refocused their solar planning to already-disturbed lands.

But so far, Randy Howard, customer service director of L.A.’s utility, hasn’t flipped any switches. “I’m looking hard for any option that would lead to a better project than the one in the Owens Valley,” Howard told the Los Angeles Times.

Howard just needs to look around his city, where rooftops call out for solar panels.

Andy Selters is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He is a freelance writer, photographer and fitness instructor who’s lived in the Owens Valley for over 20 years.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].