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May 10, 2013

"Maybe even nothing!" - How We Got Los Angeles Off Coal

LA Beyond Coal
Maybe there has never been and will never be a more important energy decision in my city, Los Angeles, than the one made last week by our city council representatives.

In fact, just recently I was having pizza next to Ronni Solomon, a local high voltage organizer for environmental justice and fellow advocate for the L.A. Beyond Coal campaign. She was wondering if there was anything that the L.A. City Council could ever vote on energy issues that would be more important than their vote to secure L.A.'s transition off of coal fired power. Andy Shrader, the dark knight of the plastic bag ban in our city and one-man clearing house for L.A.'s environmental initiatives, stepped up and said, "maybe even nothing!"

The L.A. city council's unanimous vote to move beyond coal power was the culmination of three-and-a-half years of on-the-ground organizing work with highly diverse constituents all over the city. Residents from black, white, Asian and Latino neighborhoods, along with labor, business and environmental advocacy groups came together to make the city council an offer it couldn't refuse. This victory belongs to all of these communities that raised their voice on this issue.

Back when I started this work in January of 2010, the accepted wisdom was that conservative neighborhood councils (NCs) in the San Fernando Valley would squawk so loud at the prospect of having their utility rates raised to bring more renewables online, that no city council member would dare to go against them. But we volunteer advocates, spearheaded by Chrissy Scarborough and Evan Gillespie, engaged these neighborhoods to spread the truth about how clean energy creates jobs and will not harm our health, our air, or in the long run, our wallets.

Through these meetings, we secured endorsement after endorsement from the most conservative of the Valley NCs, frequently going up against the most reactionary pro-coal voices in the city and defeating their arguments. Even more important, many members of those NCs became strong allies in the fight and showed up at L.A. Department of Water and Power Commission meetings and city council meetings to voice support for a coal-free future.

For me it was a big lesson in the power of getting out and participating in public debate about something important. Oftentimes I hear a lot of cynical comment about how it's all hopeless and the powers that be will never allow any real change. But this change is very real, because now the clean energy business contracts that will sever L.A. from two giant polluting coal plants in Arizona and Utah have been signed and their implementation is a matter of settled law.

The fight goes on, of course. Beyond Coal advocates in the southwest will work to create a cleaner alternative for those customers and continuing employment for Navajo Indians currently employed there in coal-fired generation.

A victory this fast and this complete would have been hard to foresee back in 2010. We knew it would be winnable, but having several city council members sporting Beyond Coal buttons and brandishing pieces of coal as they gave their speeches - well, that was just off the charts.

Our work now will center on helping our fellow citizens take advantage of a smorgasbord of energy efficiency rebates and credits, and helping streamline the rooftop solar program so as to minimize the utility's dependence on natural gas and maximize the percentage of clean energy in its portfolio.  (And did you see the latest report - L.A. could get 20% of its power from rooftop solar by 2020?)

However you stack it, we get to be citizens of the fastest-moving city in the country in getting to a clean and sustainable energy system.  What could be cooler than that?

-- Kent Minault, L.A. Beyond Coal volunteer

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