Sun Valley: a microcosm of environmental justice in the clean energy transition

Sun Valley: a microcosm of environmental justice in the clean energy transition

a brief look at current solar energy policy and an ongoing case of environmental justice in a Los Angeles suburb.

by Ingrid Morales

I. The Leak

On August 21st, 2020, in a small, predominantly Latino community of Los Angeles, concerns about a 67-year-old power plant operated by the city’s Department of Water and Power (DWP) caused NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to notify the DWP about a possible methane leak at the plant. As it turned out, the Valley Generating Station (VGS) had been leaking methane for over a year before the notice.

The VGS is located in Sun Valley, CA, a highly industrial residential neighborhood that is heavily burdened with dozens of landfills, waste facilities, and polluting sites, like the auto-dismantling junkyard known as ‘Pick-Your-Parts,’ as well as, trucking companies and a privately-operated airport named Whiteman Airport. As a result, residents of Sun Valley and nearby Pacoima neighborhoods have some of the worst air quality and negative health effects in the state. 

Sun Valley also happens to be my hometown. My family, including my sister and her family, still live around that area. My parents reside about a mile away from VGS. They, like many residents of Sun Valley, were outraged to hear the news about the leak, especially since Norm Cahill, the director of power supply operations, admitted in an August 2020 DWP Board of Commissioners meeting that officials had known about the leak for over a year without a sense of urgency or need to notify the nearby residents.

The demographics of Sun Valley are significant to note in regards to this methane leak. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard’s assessment tool, CalEnviroScreen, Sun Valley residents have a pollution burden in the 97th percentile, alongside high percentile burden scores in asthma, poverty, and housing. The neighborhood is 88% Latinx, with a large immigrant population. Historically underserved, Sun Valley is also subject to underinvestment due to its industrial zoning designation.  

Valley Generating Station officials were notified about the plant’s leak due to JPL’s ongoing methane monitoring research. The plant, along with the Haynes Generating Station in Long Beach, Harbor Generating Station in Wilmington, and Scattergood Generating Station in Playa del Rey provides electricity to millions of Los Angeles residents. They are all operated by the municipal utility DWP and use natural gas as their fuel source.

Last year, during the height of the summer’s heat, these electric generating stations worked to keep Angelenos’ power on, allowing the DWP to avoid rolling power outages. However, of the 1.5 million residents served, Sun Valley and Pacoima still experienced power outages. Residents in Sun Valley have considerable proximity to VGS, prompting the DWP to provide a ‘special message’:

“Equipment located at a distributing station in Sun Valley became extremely overloaded and overheated yesterday, which is affecting our ability to make repairs to the outage affecting your area and provide uninterrupted service,” said the DWP memo on September 6, 2020, “With today’s temperatures expected to exceed yesterday’s, we expect overloading again this afternoon, which will cause more outages in the area.”

II. The Shutoffs

Californians are no strangers to power shutoffs; we are more than double as likely to face a power shutoff than most other states in the country. Back in October 2020, California’s largest utility provider, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), conducted what is called a “Public Safety Power Shutoff” which cut electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers across Northern California. UC Berkeley students and faculty have also experienced these power shutoffs in the past.

(Data provided by Statista and Eaton’s Blackout Tracker Report 2018)

It’s important to consider that, although these situations may illustrate examples of negligence in management and a failure to comply with regulatory maintenance of critical infrastructure, the DWP has considerably shifted towards implementing more renewable energy sources in an effort to phase out natural gas. And PG&E’s shut offs may have avoided losses of millions of acres from wildfires.

These acts of environmental awareness and social safety concerns are in no small part due to the historic enactment of Senate Bill 32 (SB 32) and Senate Bill 350 (SB 350) in 2016, California’s official response to climate change and mandate of a 50% renewable energy standard for utilities, respectively. 

These laws have brought the conversations of bold green energy implementation, economic equity, and environmental justice to the larger legislative table. They have promised to deliver a new age for renewable energy for energy markets, environmental advocates, and frontline communities alike. Now, five years later, residents of Sun Valley and many other communities of environmental justice concern across the state question whether the state has done enough to deliver on these promises.

III. The Policies

Despite a recent focus on environmental justice funding, attention has been on Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent EV mandate, a law that requires all new automobiles sold in the state to be electric by 2035. SB 32 also brought about California’s cap-and-trade carbon market, a capitalist driven solution to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, thanks to the carbon market, Sun Valley and Pacoima will receive $23 million in community funding. However, according to a 2018 study by Cushing et al. on California’s cap-and-trade program and environmental equity, the relative social benefits of carbon trading are still uncertain as many of the benefits are not felt by the affected communities.

Out of the many laws that have been enacted as a result of California’s leadership and initiative in implementing bold, climate-centered strategies, there have also been new opportunities for California residents to join in on the clean energy transition.

California’s policy on Net Energy Metering (NEM) allows residential homeowners and businesses to gain utility credits on their bills if they are able to acquire rooftop solar. The simplest way to explain NEM is through the following example: a set of solar panels on a roof produces X amount of energy, from that energy produced, a family will use a certain portion of that energy, but possibly not all of it. Whatever energy is leftover is accrued as “credits.” Those credits can later be used as electricity that is provided from a public utility like PG&E or it can be seen as an applied discount credit on their regular utility bill.

The benefits to NEM can be advantageous as both an economic incentive in freely producing energy and doing your part to alleviate greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is that the upfront costs of installing solar panels is expensive and out of reach for most people in heavily impacted areas, such as the disadvantaged communities facing environmental burdens.

Some third-party solar suppliers, such as those who loan out the panels or provide a loan to obtain them, also rely heavily on credit scores to provide financial support, excluding many from the benefits of solar ownership. This, along with a variety of other factors, could be the reasons why there is such a large discrepancy in rooftop solar deployment among different races and ethnicities.

Another concern with NEM is that not everyone owns a home. A large portion of Californians also live in apartment complexes, condos, multi-family housing, or are houseless. If the state is hoping to create a just, clean energy transition that everyone and anyone can participate in, it would mean creating new programs that would enable everyone to benefit from renewables.

Enter: Community Choice Aggregation (CCA), commonly known as Community Solar programs.

CCAs were created as a response to NEM to allow developers and investors to be incentivized if they choose to build and finance large-scale renewable energy (typically solar) programs. As anyone vaguely interested in clean energy or energy economics will tell you, the price of solar has gone down, but the price of these large-scale projects are anything but cheap, with many costing millions.

Still, if a developer or community has the funds to build a community solar project, it’s more than likely that they’ll still need to work with an investor-owned public utility (IOU). In most cases, utilities like PG&E, SoCal Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric maintain control over the transmission and distribution lines to provide electricity to customers, resulting in a negotiation between the CCA energy provider and the IOU. This can come at the expense of the customer through a monthly subscription fee or a premium cost to sign up, as well as any other program restrictions that may have been negotiated with the IOU.

This situation is most relevant in PG&E’s efforts to establish its Solar Choice program, an option for existing customers to join a community solar program provided by PG&E or through a local renewable energy developer. Given the potential costs and added expenses of community solar, it is not a surprise that the communities to primarily benefit from CCAs are predominantly affluent communities like Palo Alto, Monterey Bay, and Marin County.

IV. The Possibilities

According to some environmental advocates, community solar is a possible gateway to include and increase the diversity of people to benefit from clean energy, especially those from climate-vulnerable neighborhoods and areas, as well as communities of color. Black and Latinx neighborhoods are especially prone to devastating climate impacts, as we have often seen in extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina and the recent Texas winter storm.

Grid Alternatives and East Bay Community Energy are two examples of solar industry companies looking to center and focus on low-income and underserved communities.

Grid Alternatives currently works with communities, tribal nations, utilities and government officials to increase access to affordable clean energy while also providing thousands of well-paid green energy jobsEast Bay Community Energy also provides access to low-cost clean energy, with some funds and electricity credits reinvested back into local communities.

(Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

V. The Challenges

Still, even with all the clean energy progress and prospects, communities like Sun Valley and Pacoima have yet to see any inkling of environmental justice or energy choice programs. The challenge remains of whether local policy makers and state government officials can be courageous enough to steer the provisions from Biden’s bold $2 trillion infrastructure plan in a direction that promotes racial equity and environmental justice through clean energy resources.

“The smell can be so bad at times that students constantly ask what the smell is and where it could be coming from while changing periods or outside during lunch,” said Leonardo Perlera, a counselor at Alliance Charter School in Sun Valley. “Pre-pandemic, some students chose to cover their noses and mouths while outside so they wouldn’t have to smell the stench during their break. It seemed to be worse in the mornings, but nobody truly understands why. We’ve had to reconsider outdoor nutrition and P.E. because of the smell,”  says Perlera, who grew up in Sun Valley and now lives in Santa Clarita.

On January 8th, 2021, Southern California’s regulatory agency in Los Angeles cited the DWP Valley Generating Station with a violation over the mismanagement of the methane leak. The subsequent citation may lead to civil or criminal action as well as a hefty fine. Until then, local residents and L.A. city council members are continuing to call for the VGS to be shut down.

The efforts towards a just clean energy transition prompt many questions: will rooftop solar deployment become more accessible in low-income, BIPOC communities? Can technology innovations, like low-cost battery storage, change the impact of renewable energy utilities?

In Sun Valley’s case, the four large decommissioned red-and-white smokestacks at the Valley Generating Station serve as a reminder and symbol of the toxic environmental impacts of the past. Although the city’s pledge for community ‘revitalization’ comes with climate resiliency plans from partners like Grid Alternatives, the bittersweet reality is that residents continue to face environmental injustices every day. Some even prompting lawsuits, like in the instance of last year’s methane leak.

Of all the questions that can be asked about the clean energy transition, one stands out amongst the rest. Who will own the bulk of solar in the clean energy transition— the privately-owned IOUs, the wealthy renewable energy developer, or the communities that face the largest threats of climate change and heaviest environmental burdens? Time can only tell.

Ingrid Morales (she/her) is a senior at the College of Natural Resources studying Renewable Energy & Energy Economics through the Conservation & Resources Studies major. Ingrid is interested in all things related to clean energy, intersectional forms of justice, and progressive, left politics.

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