Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends
Environment & Science

EXCLUSIVE: Antonio Villaraigosa on getting off of coal, renewables, green legacy

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says getting off of coal
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says getting off of coal "will be the biggest" thing that he does about climate change.

“Breaking the coal habit is a long term proposition demanding a long term commitment,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in his second inaugural address, back in 2008. “Our future depends on pricing power in relation to the environmental cost.”

I was covering the speech that day, alongside KPCC’s Frank Stoltze. I was so surprised that the DWP was planning to get off of coal by 2020 that I tracked down then-GM David Nahai after the speech to make sure that the mayor hadn’t misspoken. (Nahai assured me he had not.)  

Then Measure B, an initiative intended to drive investment in solar at DWP, failed at the ballot box in 2009. A proposal for a monthly “carbon surcharge” sank in 2010. I was almost certain that the coal goal would disappear.

Five years later, that goal hasn’t vanished like Casper; it’s coming to life like Pinocchio. “We’re not quite there yet, but I expect that today’s vote at the DWP board puts us in a real good position to be completely off of coal by 2025,” Villaraigosa told me in an interview in his office on Monday.

The mayor talked to me about coal and his environmental legacy in a little more detail after our series on his legacy began this week.

Most intriguing to me was the mayor’s confirmation that city leaders didn’t have a specific plan for eliminating L.A.’s reliance on coal earlier than scheduled when he announced the goal to end coal in 2008.

“I can’t tell you that when I said that we’d be out of coal by 2020 that we knew exactly how we would do it,” the mayor said, noting that DWP had not yet developed the comprehensive Integrated Resources Plan it now has. “I set that timeline because I knew that if you don’t set high goals and push your people you never get to goal.”

Villaraigosa acknowledged that a delay in rate hikes after the proposal of a monthly carbon surcharge in 2010 may have slowed the utility’s embrace of a lower carbon future. But he pins the responsibility for the “carbon tax” mess on the L.A. City Council.  “Yeah, I think that was the unfortunate thing. There were members of the council at the time who were running for office,” he said, “and it’s pretty easy to beat on the anti-tax drum. They were successful in limiting the increase that we got.”

Turnover in the top job at the utility – from David Nahai, to S. David Freeman, to Austin Beutner, and last to Ron Nichols – limited the DWP’s reach, too. But Villaraigosa clearly is pleased with how the DWP looks these days. “You hear the chatter about rates and the like, but there’s not enough about the forward looking policies that have made the Department of Water and Power a leader not only in putting together a plan for integrated resources, in the area of renewables, in the area of conservation, in the area of getting off of coal,” he says.

DWP officials, for their part, say there’s been no greater period of transformation for the department, at least on the energy side, than this one. “LADWP is replacing over 70 percent of its existing energy supply over the next 15 years,” Ron Nichols has said, many times, in the last year. That 70 percent figure includes getting off of coal, repowering coastal power plants, and adding renewable energy to the mix. 

That’ll cost money, of course. Ending the practice of once-through cooling already is a significant part of the DWP’s budget over the next several years. But Villaraigosa says the DWP's plan for Utah leverages $11 billion worth of existing investment and moves toward renewable energy.

“We have transmission lines going there [now],” the mayor said. “It will have a smaller natural gas facility there, that will send us natural gas. Somewhere in that Milford Valley we’ll put either solar and or wind.” That would cost money, too.

Villaraigosa takes credit for a transformation in the city's relationship with the DWP, too. By contrast, he recalls the period when William Mulholland was the name people associated with power in L.A., not the then-mayor.

“I’ve been able to change the culture there fairly dramatically,” he told me. “Before I was elected mayor, there was no real support in the agency to getting off of coal, to using more renewable energy. We were among the lowest in the United States of America at 3 percent. So I’m proud of the fact that we pushed this agency and moved it in the right direction. “