LA Kicks Coal

LA Kicks Coal

Los Angeles is losing its bad reputation.

The land of traffic, smog and sprawl is rapidly changing. LA’s skies are cleaner today than anytime in the last sixty years. Today, eleven new rail and rapid bus lines are getting built. Today, Los Angeles is using 20% less water than just two years ago. Today, renewable energy constitutes over 20% of the municipal utility’s portfolio – going towards 33% by 2020. 

Now Los Angeles is getting off of coal-fired electricity.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was an early and equivocal champion of the transition of off coal. Under his leadership, on March 19, the Los Angeles Board of Water and Power Commissioners – on which I serve – voted to phase out coal and replace it with energy efficiency, renewables, energy storage and a limited amount of natural gas.

This landmark decision will slash LA’s emissions to 60% below 1990 levels by 2025, an achievement unmatched by any other metropolis.

Sierra Club’s beyond coal campaign was the key organizer in rallying public support. Through polling, the group identified the key obstacles as: 1) the public was unaware that coal constituted 40% of the city’s energy mix, and 2) the public was unaware of the economic opportunity in creating new local sources of energy generation through solar power.

As no single group is strong enough to change policy in Los Angeles, Sierra Club built a coalition with representatives from business, organized labor, social justice and environmental justice organizations.

The beyond coal coalition argued that buying coal from Arizona and Utah was economically harmful. Buying coal sent capital out-of-state, and that these energy dollars could be better spent at home. It was natural for Sierra Club to then support the LA Business Council initiative to launch a Feed-in-Tariff renewable program, and get behind organized labor’s Repower LA initiative. In turn, these successful programs became strong allies of the beyond coal campaign.

Sierra Club employed two full time organizers, plus three support staff over the course of three years. Hundreds of Sierra Club volunteers knocked on doors and tabled at farmers markets. Volunteers won support from neighborhood councils – a crucial strategy in winning city council support. And volunteers regularly attended utility sponsored meetings, and testified at Commission and city council meetings.

At the end of the day, beyond coal had gathered tens of thousands of signatures on petitions. And managed an email list of 100,000 Angelenos.

It’s important to note that Sierra Club never personalized the fight. The City of Los Angeles was not the enemy, nor was the utility – climate change was the enemy. They campaign also presented coal transition as a fascinating engineering problem. And the engineers at utility got excited to solve this important problem. (The decline in cost of renewables and natural gas didn’t hurt either.)

Sierra Club admits they made some mistakes. Bill Corcoran, the Western Regional Campaign Director of the Beyond Coal Campaign, told me he wish they had power-mapped the city earlier. Early efforts were diffused. But once they focused their organizing efforts, the campaign really took-off. Second, they discovered that policymakers were not persuaded by coal’s effect on public health if that place was other than Los Angeles. They suggest they campaigns need to have a local focus.

In sum, many diverse players came together to win this successful policy.

Mayor Villaraigosa set the ambitious tone and relentlessly pushed for transitioning off of coal. The Commission set the policy. The superb professional staff at the Department of Water and Power did the heavy lift in planning, negotiating and executing the transition plan. And Sierra Club’s beyond coal coalition ensured that the public and city council understood the stakes and embraced the vision of a cleaner future.

Jonathan Parfrey is executive director of Climate Resolve, LA’s climate change organization. He also currently serves as a commissioner at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user daytrip2007