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L.A. faces choice on regulating solar cells, open land

L.A. city official asks DWP to put on pause new ground-based solar arrays for community input

Worried that solar farms could overtake prized patches of open space, a Los Angeles councilman is asking the Department of Water and Power board to put off allowing new arrays that are mounted on the ground — part of its Feed-in Tariff program — until the city can ensure they mesh with neighborhoods.

In a letter to the board, Councilman Felipe Fuentes argued that the city should craft a "planning review process" that would allow for community reaction before any more such projects are approved. 

His request is the latest turn in a burgeoning debate over how tightly the city can regulate one of its solar programs. As Los Angeles tries to bolster renewable energy, it finds two of its green goals on an unexpected collision course — the quest for renewable power and the desire to preserve open space.

As part of its solar push, Los Angeles has become the largest municipality in the country to operate a Feed-in Tariff program, which enables people to install solar cells and sell all the energy back to the city. By early June, the city had entered into nearly 120 Feed-in Tariff agreements, pushing to install 150 megawatts through the program by the end of 2016.

But as more people plug into the program, critics complain that communities have too little ability to stop vast arrays that clash with the feel of their neighborhoods. Some fret that undisturbed land is at risk.

"It's not about being against solar power. I'm all for it," said Eddie Conna, who lives just outside of Los Angeles in Kagel Canyon and has raised concerns about proposed installations nearby. "But we shouldn't be covering open space with solar panels when we have all these buildings and parking lots."

Others argue that it would be a mistake to delay ground-based arrays. Big solar installations might need some added review, said Dylan Sullivan, a staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, "but I don't think it makes sense to stop the whole process."

City officials say that under California's Solar Rights Act, local jurisdictions are supposed to allow private solar installations unless they harm public health or safety. State law also bars the city from releasing the addresses of Feed-in Tariff requests until the DWP signs a contract, according to the department.

As a result, Fuentes wrote in a letter last week to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, "ground-mounted solar farms are moving forward with little to no community input."

The debate recently erupted in Lake View Terrace in Fuentes' district, where one proposed project envisioned an array of 3,500 solar cells on an empty lot off Foothill Boulevard. That project got added scrutiny at a public hearing because it was along a scenic highway — and was ultimately kicked back by a local planning commission. 

But city officials are still wrestling with how strictly they can regulate "commercial" arrays. When Los Angeles and the state drafted its rules, "solar was something of a novelty," Senior City Planner Robert Duenas said. "People put a couple panels in their backyard and thought they were being green."

Now "the industry has exceeded the regulations we have in place," Duenas said.

Feed-in Tariff projects submitted to the DWP in recent months could earn 15 cents per kilowatt hour — a rate that could pull in roughly $131,000 annually for a two-and-a-half-acre array of solar panels, according to a DWP estimate. The Feed-in Tariff program only applies to solar installations of at least 30 kilowatts, much larger than a typical Los Angeles homeowner installs.

Mel Levine, who authored the law as a state assemblyman and now heads the Water and Power board, said the state rules were written when solar was in its infancy and were meant to protect homeowners planting solar cells on their rooftops.

Photovoltaic cells can also cover the ground, however, and many new projects are taking that form. Nineteen of the 119 sought-after or approved Feed-in Tariff projects in Los Angeles are mounted on the ground, according to the DWP. None of the ground-based projects have yet been approved.

"It's cheaper and easier" to mount solar cells on the ground, said Bob Gibson, vice president of education and communication for the Solar Electric Power Assn., a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. That can pose a conflict as solar expands.

"As solar has come down in cost, it's opened up more expensive land closer to populations. But they're competing with other uses for that land," he said.

Fuentes argued that despite the state law's restrictions, the city can tailor its own Feed-in Tariff program to favor rooftop installations. Because the city has already met state requirements to offer at least 75 megawatts through its Feed-in Tariff program, it should be able to modify the requirements for added projects, he wrote, asking officials to act before the next round of applications this summer.

The Board of Water and Power Commissioners hasn't acted on his request. The Los Angeles Business Council, a group that advocates for environmental sustainability, said that putting a hold on ground-mounted solar installations would be inconsistent with state law.

"We're totally sympathetic" to the concerns raised in Lake View Terrace, said Mary Leslie, president of the business group. "But I don't think it's a systemic problem."

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