Skip to main content

Op-Ed: L.A.’s 20th century solution to a 21st century issue

March 6, 2014

Does the sun no longer shine in Los Angeles? This is essentially what the city’s utility is asserting, for why else would a metropolis with millions of acres in rooftops and parking lots and thoroughfares under the Southern California sky look to a coveted landscape 200 miles away to install solar panels? Any thinking person can see that California would be a better place if solar panels were integrated into the city. The shade would be a boon to help keep a thoroughly paved landscape cooler, and the utility would save great sums in the transmission loss and power line costs of a faraway solar farm.
Someone from the city argues that people in Los Angeles will not pay for solar panels on their roofs. Pay? Why should they have to pay? Compared to sinking tens of millions of dollars on faraway panel farms, ratepayers should be invited to volunteer their roof space in lieu of essentially paving whole sweeps of landscape. The combined savings from transmission loss and power line investment on top of the reduction in greenhouse warming could likely be enough to offer incentives.
And if rooftops don’t suffice, L.A.’s parking lots are begging for shade and multi-use efficiency. Parking violations could be a major funding source. Then you’d get hallelujahs and willful park-ins and people would know that their lives actually matter, that they are not just units of consumption. And after all the parking lots are contributing to clean energy, there’s about 50 million square feet of available space also begging for shade along the L.A. aqueduct. And if for some reason none of this low-hanging fruit-space seems tasty, there’s easily several thousand rooftop owners in the Owens Valley who would gladly volunteer to allow DWP to install on their roofs rather than have the valley floor paved with PV panels, starting with the Vons, Kmart and DWP complexes.
This is about upgrading the model of a public utility from that of a mercantilist fiefdom, where production is allotted here and sent off for consumption there. When production and consumption don’t talk to each other, then both become mindless if not cancerous. There is a desperate hunger in this country to do solar right, to do something right for once by the land and by common sense as well as by utility calculations, to operate as if we were all in the same world. Americans and especially Californians are crying out for integrated solutions, for integration into the lands and the institutions we inhabit – including democracy – and an integrated solar plan for Los Angeles is a fabulous opportunity.
A hundred years ago, L.A. took the Owens River water, and that displacement enabled Southern California to expand into a garden and orchard metropolis. Citizens were lured in and city planning became a matter of making it seem that water and electricity flowed in simple bounty from faucets and switches, dis-integrated from the place where they lived. The city exploded, the gardens and orchards were turned into gridlocked freeways and smog, and L.A. became the megalopolis that everyone flocks to so they can afford to get away to somewhere else.
And throughout that process two important things happened. First, the amount of water that was assumed to be so vast as to supply the city for indefinite decades simply opened the door to an urban powerhouse empowered to acquire more water wherever it could, from the Colorado River, from the Mono Basin, the California Aqueduct, from the Owens Valley subsurface. Once additional transmission lines are built to channel solar electricity, the same power will be wielded with industrial solar farming.
The second thing that happened is that the Owens Valley, Eastern Sierra and White-Inyo mountains landscape that was set aside as watershed protection struck chords much deeper than utility services. The Owens Valley is the land that the Paiutes became an eternal people on, and they can still know it. This is the land that moved Mary Austin, Ansel Adams, Robert Clunie, Peggy Gray, Galen Rowell and all of us who live and visit here to become artists who understand that appreciating land can resuscitate the optimistic heart beneath our heartless tendencies. The undeveloped magnificence became the place that the freeway-dazed Angelenos have come to experience, knowing how their city is no longer a good place to inhabit all week, and the Owens Valley became their pie-in-the-sky recreation zone, where they can escape their manufactured world and glimpse what the earth apart from competitive commuting is really about.
This is the land that is inscribed forever into the spirit of a few thousand families detained at Manzanar, and thanking them for their input while ignoring what they have to say is treating their legacy as disposable as their citizenship rights once were.
The Owens Valley sits now as a counter-balance to all of our best-laid plans, and we have an aching need to do well by it. This is land with a soul that has survived where most of the rest of California has not, and it resonates with cowboys, Indians, filmmakers and seekers of all stripes. It is not disposable space.
If this initial panel farm and those that would follow go up, the land would not go away. It would fester beneath the panels like a sore, shedding dust like dead skin, dust for the winds to kick up and cover the panels and sweep into the skies. If valued land is scraped and covered with flat panels to power flatscreen televisions, we will be taking one more irreversible leap to becoming a flat-panel world where entertainment is all that is real.
If carpet-paneling the Owens Valley were really the last best option to give Los Angeles a big dose of clean energy, Inyo citizens would line up to say, “Yes, alas, it must be done.” But we know it’s not like that. In legal parlance, the city has not considered a reasonable range of alternatives. Their documents don’t mention in-town installations; they ask only which spans of the California desert are best available.
In a metropolis where image is primary material, here is the image belied by an overview of the DWP headquarters: a grand rooftop helipad, parking lots baking in the sun, and what I believe are giant fans to cool the offices from all the sun pouring down. Are there no architects to design aesthetically attuned solar arrays to delight the eye like the Disney theater a few blocks away? Is it not possible for America’s original Sunbelt city to show the world the innovative thinking to bring on a better 21st century and not just install green technology onto the habits of the 19th?
We have been here before. Inyo County ultimately opened the door for most all the water to leave. That dewatering saved the land and now the land stands out as something vital. Now they want the land as well.

(Today’s Top of the Morning is written by Andy Selters, a 24-year resident of the Eastern Sierra. He is a freelance photographer, author of several outdoor books, and a former climbing guide. He keeps his sanity by going outdoors and teaching T’ai-chi.)

Premium Drupal Themes by Adaptivethemes