To the Editor:
The solar industry in Los Angles, operating within the LADWP service area, has been put on ice for four to five months. The LADWP has shut down the ability to sell and install a Solar Electric System for the third time in five years. Permits from building and safety are still available, but due to the dysfunctional conditions at LADWP (extremely understaffed, department infighting and operating under rules that were designed for technology in the 1970’s) it has become impossible to install a solar electric system in the largest municipal utility in the United States servicing over four Million residents.
Without any warning on midnight April 8, 2011 LADWP shut down 70% of our business by refusing to process any solar rebate paperwork. April 11, 2011 LADWP sent letters to all customers installing a solar electric system threatening financial penalties and legal action if they turn on their solar system with out first receiving a LADWP solar inspection. The following week LADWP reassigned most of their solar inspectors to other jobs, thereby bringing the inspection process to a virtual halt.
The LADWP solar incentive program had a staff of three up until December 2010, when one person retired. This leaves two people to process all the paper work for solar installations, man the office and answer the phone. Processing paper work for each project requires carefully examination to check all the calculations and confirm all the components selected for the solar system are acceptable to LADWP. After this is complete (which takes by one estimate takes about two hours) a “rebate reservation” of the system can be scheduled. This process takes six to ten weeks. After the reservation is issued, the solar system can be installed. Once installed, LADWP needs to have a copy of the final inspection from Building and Safety. Then after another four to ten weeks of processing paperwork an inspection of the system can be scheduled with an LADWP solar inspector. Then after two to four weeks an inspector will show up. In the case of one of our clients, Mr.Reinstein, was given an estimate that it would take 3-4 weeks for the DWP to come out and inspect his system so that it could be turned on. Mr. Reinstein, like all customers are given strict instructions that they are not allowed to “turn on” their solar systems before the solar inspection or they will be in violation of LADWP rules. Mr. Reinstein waited four months. This means his solar system, which was already inspected and approved by LA Building and Safety, remained turned off and was not producing energy. All because the LADWP requires they send out their own inspector to look at the system. In the mean time, as his solar system sat dormant on his roof, four tons of coal was burned to produce the electricity that Mr. Reinstein was consuming.
So Cal Edison allows the solar system to be turned on immediately after passing Building and Safety inspection. So Cal Edison has outsourced the inspection responsibility because it is more economical and efficient in terms of quality control and speed. They randomly inspect 15% of the solar systems installed.
LADWP needs restructuring or to outsource the solar program. Current policies are a bureaucratic nightmare and their commitment to accommodating renewable energy on a local level is only PR rhetoric. Several solar contractors have offered to pay for an additional staffer at the DWP just to speed up the paperwork, but the response was to actually decrease staffing instead.
Secondly, there is the basic issue that LADWP is disorganized and inefficient. Skip Farber (another Solar Forward client) had the following to say after dealing with the DWP on his solar project.
“I found the LADWP people to be smart and courteous with a genuine desire to serve the customer. That being said, as an experienced business person I can make the following assumptions and observations: The Solar Program is not organized or empowered to manage the internal LADWP cross-over of departments. Inefficiencies and coordination issues were obvious in several areas. A specific example was the installation of the proper meter….we had three such changes to meters before getting the proper meter. This was both expensive for LADWP and us. It also resulted in billing mistakes which required time on both (LADWP/us) our parts to sort out. It seems that LADWP has several “silos” that operate somewhat or completely independently. The Solar Group needs to access or function across these groups but does not have control or authority to manage projects centrally. This leads to the kind of inefficiency described above.”
Similar to Mr. Reinstein, Mr. Farber not only had to wait an extraordinary amount of time for his paperwork to be processed and his system to be inspected by DWP’s own people—while his system was sitting dormant—but he also received a lower rebate check amount with no justification or notification of the change. This was due to DWP staff making mistakes. After six months of futile efforts, there is still no response from LADWP to over thirty phone calls and emails. Now, the manager and all of the solar inspectors have been reassigned.
The policy of LADWP sending out their own inspector to re-inspect a solar system for safety purposes is an insult to LA Building and Safety. The claim is solar electric systems on the grid could cause harm to electricians working on electrical lines nearby. UL 1741 is the required standard with modern inverters – they turn off when the grid is down. There is no justifiable safety hazard. So Cal Edison, PG&E and all of Europe have faith in today’s technology and don’t even require an old fashion open blade AC disconnect switch that LADWP requires let alone redundant inspectons.
We want to work with the DWP to resolve this issue. It is not our goal to sit on the sideline and play the blame game. We have made several requests for meetings with LADWP to discuss the issues and work together - all have been denied. It is in all of our interests to see this process become streamlined, for the environment, our health and for the economy. Many solar contractors working in LA have had to lay people off. This has now become a legal issue of “Restraint of Trade” since LADWP is not allowing us to operate our business. Realistically, Solar Forward will not be able to install a new solar electric system for five months.
In order to achieve Governor Brown’s goal of producing 33% clean energy by 2020, something needs to change. Our aging infrastructure with a centralized energy design is inefficient. Close to 10% of the coal-generated energy is lost traveling hundreds of miles across interstate lines, through transformers and local distribution. Residential and commercial solar electric systems supply energy locally, to their own house or business. If your not home or the business is closed on the weekend, the energy is consumed locally in the neighborhood.
If the city of Los Angeles is truly serious about clean energy, then this issue needs to be made a priority. The American Lung Association calls Los Angeles the second dirtiest and most dangerous city in terms of air pollution and respiratory problems. They also released information recently conveying that particle pollution from power plants kills approximately 13,000 people a year. About 50% of the LADWP’s electricity comes from coal-powered plants.
Solar power is clean, safe, local energy. LADWP has proven that it is not a team player in enabling the residents and businesses in Los Angeles effectively install green energy on a local level. The solar program needs to in the hands of a third party.