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Northeast L.A. Needs to Gaze More Intensely at the Sun

We have to get used to seeing solar arrays in our backyards.

On sunny Southern California days of the kind we've been having lately, it’s easy to dream of a solar-powered future. But it will take more than dreaming to capture the promise of abundant energy from the sun. Solar currently represents just above 0.1 percent of the almost 95 quadrillion BTUs of energy generated for use as fuel and electricity in the United States annually. (“BTU” stands for British Thermal Unit—roughly the amount of energy needed to heat a pound of water from 39° F to 40° F.)

How can we expand solar to be more than a drop in the bucket of the energy mix in this country, especially in our sun-friendly region? More solar will help us move away from sources such as coal that have massive negative repercussions on health and the environment.

The need to expand renewable electricity production is even greater than it might appear because, in addition to replacing dirty power plants, we should also quickly phase out petroleum—our single largest source of fuel—and move entirely to electrified vehicles.

Government incentives are encouraging not only homeowners to install solar systems but also investors in California, who are launching large-scale solar projects. Higher demand for projects of all sizes can spur research to lower the cost of solar. California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a law requiring California utilities to supply at least 33 percent of their power from renewable energy sources by 2020.

Because solar power is an environmental imperative and a promising industry, you may be shocked to hear that the City of Los Angeles is considering an Interim Control Ordinance that would freeze medium-scale to large-scale solar projects across one-third of the City for a year to two years.

This proposed solar ICO, which will be taken up by the city’s Planning Commission May 12, is nominally about the City halting ground-mounted solar projects on hillsides, which are very high fire zones, to address fire and safety concerns. But that isn’t why the ordnance was drafted. It was drafted because some residents of Northeast Los Angeles don’t like how the solar array on the hill behind the Broadview Nursing Home in Montecito Heights looks. (Read about that by clicking here and here.)

The ICO is a visual ordinance masquerading as a safety ordinance. It appears to address concerns about fire and safety because under the state’s Solar Rights act, local governments can only regulate solar generation for reasons of public health or safety. Many of the hillside areas covered by the ICO are also covered with wood-framed houses and garages that present a much higher fire risk than photovoltaic panels and invertors.

As my colleague Dan Snowden-Ifft, a physics professor (and our resident solar expert) at , told me, solar arrays on hills probably reduce fire risk because landowners have a bigger incentive to clear brush around the array than they do on an unoccupied hill. Besides, says Snowden-Ifft, homeowners are allowed to place solar panels on wood-roofed garages, where there have been fires linked to solar equipment, but to the best of his knowledge, no fires have ever been caused by a ground-mounted solar array. 

The ICO may also be illegal because it doesn’t provide any evidence that a freeze on ground-mounted arrays is “necessary to ensure that the solar energy system will not have a specific, adverse impact upon the public health or safety,” as is required under the state’s Solar Rights act.

As I mentioned, I don’t think that the ordinance is really about safety. It was written because some neighbors complained about the Montecito Heights array, also known as the Broadview array. I remember reading about it and wondering what the fuss was about.

Then one day, as I was driving on the 110 freeway, I glimpsed a triangular patch of panels raised on poles. Later, I got a better view from a Gold Line train. It looked cool. Last week I saw the Broadview array up close. I like the way it looks: the skyline of downtown LA visible over the high-tech grid of panels, light filtering through the gaps between the panels mounted on each pole, the rows running up and down the hill.

I was going to write about the irony (or hypocrisy) of people living in hillside houses, surrounded by power poles and lines, opposing hillside solar developments because they didn’t want their views altered. But I’ll instead acknowledge that some people have different tastes than I do, and that natural landscapes are an important component of our environmental values.

It’s just so happens that to clean our air (including cutting smog that ruins views), to stabilize the climate, to reduce the environmental destruction wrought by coal and gas and oil extraction, we need to dramatically increase renewable energy. We need it on all scales, even when—and where—people don’t like the way it looks in their backyards. We need mega-solar projects in the desert. We need mid-sized to large-sized solar arrays on hills. We need solar panels on tile roofs. We need offshore wind.

And that means that here in Los Angeles, we need to learn to love or at least tolerate solar panels. Yes, we need to flip that childhood warning on its head and gaze more directly at the power of the sun.

Maggie Freed May 09, 2011 at 06:00 PM
Thanks for your article,Mark. I LIKE seeing those panels - it makes me feel like we're at least doing SOMETHING about cleaning up our energy production. We got panels installed on our roof before the LADWP suspended their incentive program for household solar, and it's a delight to watch the meter spinning backwards on a nice day! I hope the suspension will not last too long, and I encourage anyone with south-facing roofs to consider adding solar panels. Do you know if Oxy is planning solar installations? It seems they have a pretty good amount of hillside.
Mark Vallianatos May 09, 2011 at 10:05 PM
Hi Maggie. Yes, Oxy is planning them. I'll write about it when the details are final/shared with public.
Rob Schraff May 10, 2011 at 04:27 PM
Mark - I very much enjoyed your column, and I personally agree with many of the positive comments on both the aesthetics of the Broadview project and the potential for solar power in Los Angeles. You may also be interested to know that the Mount Washington Association, a local grassroots group that welcomes all (we're not a "homeowner's" group, in other words), and has been involved in local land use and environmental issues for more than 50 years, has also taken much the same stand. Here's a motion passed in September of last year regarding the Broadview project: 1) The Mt. Washington Association supports solar energy 2) The Mt. Washington Association supports the Broadview Solar Array Project 3) The Mt. Washington Association urges the Los Angeles City Council to be sensitive to the cost and delays, to the developer or homeowner, of the Environmental Review Process. I am hopeful that the poor policy choices reflected in the ICO you address are not embraced by the city, not least because I can also imagine litigation at great cost to the city to defend the aesthetics of a few against long-term environmental and health advantages so cogently addressed in your column. Sincerely - Rob Schraff President, Mount Washington Association
Rob Schraff May 10, 2011 at 04:33 PM
Mark - Finally, at our regular general membership meeting in May, the Mount Washington Association has planned a presentation on home solar installation, recent efficiency and cost improvements, and how to figure out if solar is right for you. It will be May 19, from 7:30 to 9:00 PM at the Jack and Denny Smith Multipurpose Room at Mt. Washington Elementary School. We're even having pizza! We'd love to see you there. Rob Schraff President, Mt. Washington Association
Peter Lucey May 11, 2011 at 01:23 PM
Hi Mark, Add to your list of the benefits of solar power the fact that power is generated locally. In the case of rooftop solar very locally. No unsightly power poles. We are "Sunny Southern California" and we still lag the nation in overall air quality. Solar is the naturally solution. I think the Broadview projec looks great and is an example of Los Angeles walking the talk. Professor Snowden makes a good point. The Broadview hillside lot is going to get better vegetation management because of the solar panel installation. Perhaps The City could provide a small grant to plant wildflowers among the panels. Now that would look cool! Peter Lucey

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