solar roof

An ambitious solar energy plan for the smoggiest city in America might sound like a hands-down winner, but the Green Energy and Good Jobs for Los Angeles ballot initiative has stumbled over some unsettled questions about its likely costs, transparency, and timing.

Angelenos will vote on the plan March 3. If passed, it would add solar panels on rooftops and parking lots across the city and require the city’s energy utility to produce a sizeable 400 megawatts of solar power by 2014. Supporters say it will it would remove 400,000 tons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere annually and help position L.A. as a solar energy leader and industry center. They unveiled a string of new endorsements on Thursday, including ones from actor Ed Begley Jr., the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the California League of Conservation Voters, and the American Lung Association (ALA).

The ALA’s annual “State of the Air” reports have repeatedly found the L.A.’s smog and soot levels to be the worst in the nation, and the group endorsed the plan based on the reductions it could bring in lung disease, asthma, and other public health problems.

But nothing draws votes these days like the promise of jobs (especially, of course, green jobs), and the thousands of predicted jobs are a hallmark of the solar initiative, known locally as Measure B. The plan includes retraining for workers to work in the solar industry and the broader green economy and a job recruitment program that will target low-income neighborhoods.

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“Thousands of jobs already exist in California because of investments in our clean energy economy. Measure B will support good paying, local jobs and develop our city’s renewable energy industry,” David Pettit, the NRDC’s Southern California air quality project leader, said in a release.

But jobs are also the source of much of the plan’s controversy. Measure B requires that all work be performed by the unionized workerforce employed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the country’s largest municipal utility. Critics see this as a power grab by the union and say the job-creation claims don’t have data to support them.

They level the same charge at the costs that supporters estimate: about one dollar a month extra for the average utility customer. For the price increase to remain that low, federal tax credits, technological advances, and improvements in the supply of solar panels would be required. Supporters of Measure B acknowledge these factors are out of their control.

At the center of the cost debate are two dueling — nay, swashbuckling — consultant reports. (You try to make utility reports sound exciting.) The first report warned that costs for implementing Measure B could reach $3.6 billion in the absence of federal support, and it questioned LADWP’s ability to install so many solar panels in such a short time. The second, commissioned by the utility (PDF), put the cost at $1.6 billion, though it’s based on an analysis of the larger three-part Solar L.A. program, of which Measure B is only one part.

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Things get pretty nitty gritty from there, with the L.A. Times opinion page hosting much of the back-and-forth. The paper’s editorial board criticizes of the lack of information and the late release of the more optimistic report. It appeared just four weeks before the election, with mail-in voting already underway.

From the Times:

This page wants smart “in-basin” [local] solar power as an integral part of the city’s energy generation and distribution strategy, and we remain open to the idea that this ballot measure may be the best way to get it. But the process seems designed to get voters to sign off on a plan without sufficient knowledge of it, and it is undermining a broader discussion of solar power in Los Angeles. There is a point at which process gets so bad that it outweighs substance, no matter how good that substance may be. We’re rapidly approaching that point.

Who’s got a rebuttal? Ed Begley Jr., of course: “For too long my hometown, Los Angeles, has led the nation in air pollution and producing greenhouse gases. It is time for a change. If voters in Los Angeles join me and vote for Measure B March 3, we can lead the nation in clean solar power and the new green economy,” he said Thursday.

Then again, there are a lot of L.A. eco-celebrities who are keeping quiet on this. If Begley’s the only one endorsing Measure B, do the rest know something he doesn’t? Or is this thorny municipal debate too un-glamorous for the globe-trotting, seal-saving types?

Clearly, we need to hear from more Hollywood greens. Leo? Cameron? Brad and Angie? I’m ready to take your calls.