Episode 2, full transcript
Episode 2: Power Lines
WARREN: Smog is one of the oldest stories in Los Angeles. When I was first recruited to work for Channel 2 News several decades ago, I got rides from LAX into Hollywood, and it took several trips before I ever saw any mountains. The smog was so thick I wouldn’t have known they were there if I hadn’t seen them from up in the sky. Sure, the atmosphere’s a lot clearer now -- and that’s a great achievement -- but there’s still a lot you can’t see, and what’s out of sight can be out of mind. Especially when the problems are happening to somebody else.
LA still has America’s worst air pollution, and even though it’s almost invisible, it’s responsible for massive health problems and for greenhouse emissions. I’m Warren Olney. This is In Our Backyard, a six-part series about Climate Change in Southern California.
[CARS, FREEWAY, ENGINES, PORTS AMBIENCE]
WARREN: You can’t see LA’s contribution to climate change, but you can hear it as millions of vehicles emit greenhouse gases. By default, we’re hosting a climate change laboratory for advanced research, for struggles with regulations, and for environmental justice. It’s like the COVID pandemic, the least powerful people suffer the worst of the percussions. Before we get into the story, let’s start with the basics. Just what are “greenhouse gases?” How do they do their damage? I thought I knew ‘til I talked with Ed Avol, professor of clinical preventive medicine and Division Chief for Environmental Health at USC…
Ed: Well, so formally speaking, when people think about greenhouse gases, they always start with carbon dioxide. But that's not the only greenhouse gas of importance that happens to be the most important one in terms of volume, how much is out there. But there are other greenhouse gases that are important. Methane, for example, is very important. Methane is only a very small percentage of the pie if you were to cut out pieces. But methane turns out to be very important in terms of what it can do.
WARREN: What methane can do is trap heat -- 28 times more effectively than carbon dioxide. Nitrous oxide’s another greenhouse gas. It warms the atmosphere up to 300 times more than carbon does over 100 years. And, there are more gases.
Ed: Hydrofluorocarbons, the propellant gases that used to be, for example, in spray cans is maybe the best way we know them. These chlorofluorocarbons are also notorious greenhouse gases and again, by volume aren't a big piece of the pie. But in terms of potential damage that they wreak in terms of chemistry and other impacts in the atmosphere disproportionately affect this. So these half dozen different chemicals, most of which people think about only in the context of carbon dioxide, comprise what we think about as greenhouse gases.
WARREN: Now those half-dozen greenhouse gases have now reached levels that boggle the mind -- more concentrated than they’ve been for at least 800,000 years. That’s a timeframe I can’t begin to imagine. Now 20% of the atmospheric buildup is caused by deforestation like when rainforests are cut down. But in this episode we’re focused on the other 80%, and you already know, it’s the burning of fossil fuels. Coal, oil, natural gas, they provide the World with electricity, transportation, heating and cooling. And, Southern California’s a classic example.
Ed: Up until the recent pandemic, so many of us sort of lived in our cars. Every day, you were driving somewhere and many of us put on thousands of miles in our vehicles. We have a huge cargo goods movement, which entails the movement of lots of heavy trucks, shipping, airlines, et cetera. So a lot of transportation opportunity here, which means a lot of emissions. Generating power for the population requires power plants, which we have throughout the state and as well as some of the country's largest oil fields. And so we have refinery operations. So all these things sort of mix up and provide many, many gases that go into the air. Unfortunately, we sort of back into the notion of our air sort of being the cesspool, if you will, for what we exhaust, what we burn to create energy and to move around, we continue to have this problem.
WARREN: But people don’t look at California just to see what’s been going wrong.
Ed: California is often seen as either an outlier or a leader in terms of what changes are made. So people look to see what works in California. You know, the great experiment is happening here, and then learn from that. That's been the case in our changes and improvement in operations in our ports, in the cargo goods movement. That's been true for changing and thinking about how we move around and build our cities here. So I think, again, people look to California to see what has changed. Often they say, “I can't believe they're doing those Californians are doing this,” but then years later, they adopt those very same policies.
WARREN: As for Los Angeles, it’s got world-class universities, enlightened regulatory agencies that make it a leading innovator in the movement to go green, but that doesn’t mean the benefits are equally spread around.
Ed: Well, so there's you know, there are multiple layers in which we can sort of think about this. First, there's the air quality and regional variation across Southern California, for example. So the inland valleys, areas close to freeways often are impacted in different ways. Pollution levels are higher, for example, near freeways. And because of the sunlight and the stagnation of air, pollution levels tend to get higher in some of the inland valleys in the San Fernando, San Gabriel Valley, Pomona, Walnut Valleys, et cetera. And so we see higher levels at certain times of the day in certain areas. In addition to that there's a racial ethnic disparity as well that is overlaid on this, because certain populations of people live in certain places.
Ed: And, unfortunately, because of the assignments of where manufacturing refineries, power plants, sort of heavy industrial operations are. And so if you're put in close proximity to some of these places, you're being exposed to these higher pollution levels, all the elements are weighing against you.
WARREN: So certain communities are more affected than others. What are the health effects of greenhouse emissions?
Ed: Well, there's a whole long list. Thinking about it conceptually, once you inhale contaminants an airborne contaminants and it crosses the air blood barrier in the lungs. And once it gets into the circulatory system, it can travel anywhere in the body, of course. And so over the course of years of research, we have found health effects in virtually most, if not all of the organs of the body. So we see certainly respiratory effects, both in short-term and long term. We see cardiovascular effects in terms of affecting your heart. We see effects with the things that you might not expect, things with obesity, diabetes. Looking at liver disease, we have found cognitive effects. So look at central nervous system aspects, the ability of children to pay attention, to learn in school. All these things are impacts in terms of health. And so depending on what age of the population you're talking about, depending on where you live and how long you've been exposed, there's a whole long list, both in the short-term that one thinks about it maybe being more reversible, but also the long-term is being sort of chronic problems.
WARREN: So greenhouse emissions are bad for the environment and bad for our health. Reporter Miguel Contreras tells us about one community where the environment’s been especially unhealthy. It’s in a part of the city that doesn’t get very much attention, where LA’s Department of Water and Power has kept a major power plant running, even as it’s trying to reduce greenhouse emissions everywhere else.
MIGUEL: In 1986, a local businessman jokingly told the LA Times that Sun Valley, with its fifty-or-so junkyards, was the auto-wrecking capital of California. Today, more than a hundred auto-dismantlers and scrapyards of one type or another litter this corner of the northeast San Fernando Valley.
Many of those junkyards sit on what used to be giant quarries, where for decades developers dug up dirt and rock to build up other parts of LA. When the pits were no longer useful or became a nuisance, the owners filled them with garbage. Environmentalists complained about pollution. Residents complained about the smell.
Then there’s the rail line, the three freeways with near constant big-rig traffic, and two nearby airports. And well, this largely Latinx, working-class neighborhood has been bombarded on all sides by pollution for decades.
Angelica Dueñas was born and raised in Sun Valley. She’s an activist, a mother, and a candidate for Congress in this district.
ANGELICA: It's very interesting how, how you see something and it's been there my whole entire life. When we saw the smokestacks we knew we were home.
In the center of Sun Valley sits the Valley Generating Station. With its telltale red and white stripes, it’s the oldest gas-burning power plant operated by the LA Department of Water and Power.
ANGELICA: You almost like -- you were happy to see it. When you’ve been driving for five, six hours to see that you’re almost home. You know, and, to, to then have it be something that has caused damage and caused harm to our community.
And, that harm is well-recorded. According to the state’s pollution mapping tool, the asthma rate in one neighborhood right next to the power plant is higher than in 82 percent of all other neighborhoods in California.
ANGELICA: If you look right over there, you have, a health care center and right next to a hospital. I was born across the street -- you have children, babies being born, and their first breath of air is this that we have here.
Local grassroots organizations have been fighting to curb pollution in this part of Los Angeles for years. Here’s one of them. Andres Ramirez, the Policy Director for Pacoima Beautiful.
ANDRES: We advocate for you know equitable policy when it comes to environmental justice, housing, transportation. We work predominantly in the northeast San Fernando Valley which is in the northeast corner of Los Angeles County. And, it’s one of those communities that is predominantly people of color working class, mostly immigrant and that's been disinvested in for many years. A lot of toxic facilities are found in our community. The Valley Gas plant has been in the neighborhood since the 1950s. So it has a long, long history, and it's a very visible landmark in the community, right.
Pacoima Beautiful’s mission for the last few years has been:
ANDRES: A transition of Los Angeles to 100%, clean energy.
Here’s why. In 2019, the City of LA announced the closure of three natural gas-powered plants on the coast. This was after the city planned to rebuild the plants in response to a 2010 California state bill requiring they shutter because of the damage they’ve been doing to local marine environments. The remaining plant would be the Valley Generating Station. This prompted organizations, like Pacoima Beautiful, to ask: what about our dirty air?
ANDRES: That really started the conversation for us. What about the Valley Gas Plant? Right? Why is this the older facility and is not included in this plan to decommission gas. So we started engaging with DWP to have this conversation of, you know, when can we start talking about decommissioning gas. A lot of the response from DWP at the time was like, well, you got to understand that this gas plant is vital for the reliability of the energy for the rest of the city. And you know, it's only going to be used for emergencies, but it's important that we have it. Of course, the pandemic hits, right. Valley Gen has been really turned on the entire time during the pandemic. You know. And so we see it, we live it right, the smoke plumes going up.
Turns out the smoke plumes weren’t the only problem. In August of 2020, Marty Adams, the head of LADWP, abruptly announced they had discovered a methane leak at the Valley Generating Station. While LADWP had known about the leak for at least a year, the leak itself had been going on for about three. We reached out to LADWP, they pointed us to their previous statements saying that this was more a matter of miscommunication. That there had been no harm to the community.
Ultimately, DWP said that methane is dangerous in confined spaces, but that because the gas compressor in question was outside, the public was never in danger. DWP conceded that the utility simply could not afford to take the Valley Generating Station offline, leak or not.
Here’s Marty Adams speaking at a board meeting in September.
MARTY ADAMS: As we rebuild our system and we reach our goals of greening the entire grid, we’re relying on Valley and our other local generating plants even more sometimes to keep the electric system running...And so as we often have to rely on Valley more during the course of our upgrades, we realize that the local folks are making somewhat of a sacrifice in support of the overall efforts of the city to reach a greener future.
A sacrifice that only some people had to make. Here’s Andres Ramirez again.
ANDRES: As you can imagine you know people in the Valley not taking that very, very well. You know what I mean? Like are you kidding me? So we just got to take it for the team. Like that's that's that's not a solution.
It wasn’t lost on members of the community that the news of the leak came out in the middle of a deadly respiratory disease pandemic, in a community that already has higher rates of asthma and pollution affecting their lungs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, historical inequities have put communities of color at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19.
CINDY FABIAN: It just proves to me that they don't care. They don't care about the community. They don't care about our health. I mean, if they did, they wouldn't have done this. They would have let us know right away. They would have fixed the problem. But no, it went on for two, three years. That's sad. That makes me sad and upset. Imagine all the people that got affected. Their health like that just, it's upsetting.
High-schooler, Cindy Fabian is part of the leadership council of Pacoima Beautiful’s student group, called Youth United Towards Environmental Protection, or YUTEP for short. Victor Sanchez is another YUTEP member.
VICTOR SANCHEZ: If anything, it showed us how, prior to COVID, we were already a disadvantage. You know. Having this gas leak go on without even knowing. And then after hearing COVID, you realize how vulnerable we are compared to everyone else. When it happened, a different community, I remember the Porter Ranch gas leak, right? They didn't wait three years to tell everyone, they told them right away, and they got everyone out of the area. And that just just kind of felt like, you know, that they really don't care about us.
You might remember the methane leak that hit Aliso Canyon near Porter Ranch in 2015.
Reporter: A utility company well has been releasing more than 1,200 tons of methane gas…
Reporter: It has forced more than 2,000 families to move temporarily…
Reporter: And, for months now, it’s been the site of a massive natural gas leak.
The Sun Valley leak was small by comparison, about 367 kilograms per hour at its peak. Porter Ranch was 50,000.
Even though DWP said the methane leak didn’t cause any harm, what is uncontested is that methane is a big contributor to climate change. And Sun Valley residents remain mistrustful, especially considering DWP knew about the leak for at least a year.
The State of California says a greener future is near, setting a goal of 100 percent clean energy by the year 2045. A recent study commissioned by the City of Los Angeles found it could end its reliance on fossil fuels like natural gas and coal as soon as 2035. In the meantime, plants like the Valley Generating Station will keep burning gas, and that means more carbon-capturing methane will enter the atmosphere. DWP admitted as much to Andres Ramirez when they gave Pacoima Beautiful a tour of the plant.
ANDRES: The engineering feat of that facility is impressive. There's a ginormous machine that they use to collect the gas and burn it and generate energy from it. And all of us wearing masks of course because a COVID right but even with the mask it was very it was a strong smell like of gas. I personally couldn’t last long standing in there. I started feeling a little nauseous breathing all this stuff in, right. But, the other thing we found out when we did the tour is that the machine itself, the way it's designed, it's meant to leak. And we're like “what? like that that's not cool.” And so even if you fix it, it's still gonna leak because that's just how the machine is designed, you know, but this is just not information that's readily given to the public. So that's why to me it was just like you're telling me this doesn't have an impact on people like being around it is sickening, you know, and is just blowing up into the open air and there’s housing a stone's throw away from this facility.
Ramirez says that even with the best of intentions in mind, movements like the transition to green energy have the potential to leave communities like Sun Valley behind in the name of progress.
ANDRES: There's folks that are environmentalists who, and are great people, right, but their priority is ecological. I think I think a lot of it has to do with experience, with privilege. Simple solutions that make sense to folks that have privileges don't necessarily fit for everybody, right? The environmental justice issue around climate change isn't siloed? right? Especially in communities like ours, it's impacting housing, it’s impacting health, it’s impacting transportation, and, you know, all these, all these issues need to be addressed. It can't It can't just create a policy around, you know, lowering greenhouse gas emissions, and, you know, wash your hands of it. That's not how it’s going to work. We’ve got to think about, you know, how do we make sure that there's no unintended consequences of doing the right thing, and making sure that the impacts are well-rounded and and positively benefit our communities?
ANDRES: That's the unique space that we're finding when it comes to environmental justice. Right? It's really the Justice piece is a key component of it, right? How do we engage around the systems of oppression that impact our community? And has that informed how communities have been organized and planned, right? You know, because it's not a it's not a coincidence that, you know, frontline communities have the toxic facilities concentrated in their communities. That wasn't that was a simple, simple coincidence. Someone made a decision a long time ago that these communities could carry that burden because you know, those lives on are not as valuable as others.
LA City Council president Nury Martinez, who represents Sun Valley and used to be executive director of Pacoima Beautiful, has demanded a timeline from DWP for when the plant could be decommissioned. And while a closure date has not officially been announced, LADWP has faced some accountability. In January of this year, the South Coast Air Quality Management District slapped the utility with a violation, a pink slip, for failing to maintain the compressors to “ensure proper operation”. Since DWP has already fixed the leak, it’s not clear what the real-world consequences will be for the utility.
During the past few months, community members have been out in front of the Valley Generating Station demanding for the plant to be shut down. I met up with the protestors on a windy Friday afternoon. They held a banner that read SHUT IT DOWN LADWP. Some held signs that said PRIORITIZE SUN VALLEY and SHAME ON DWP. Several big rig drivers honked in support of the activists on this busy street.
Besides the protests, the news of the leak has given them an opportunity to teach their own families and members of the community about the issues facing Sun Valley. But beyond that, it has helped them envision what they want their neighborhood to be. Here’s YUTEP member Jasmine Le.
JASMINE LE: My little interpretation of it is kind of like our little mini-version or larger version of the Lorax, where a factory you just planted in there and is taking all of our resources, and we're the little animals are like, “No, we don't like this.” I connected to that book when I was younger, not knowing that in our future, I was someone that spoke up for him, maybe I'm a Lorax like, you know, you never know. The Lorax was just one person, we have a huge community that we’re a part of and it's wonderful and like having adults and and and youth and stuff like that it's just better than the actual ending of the Lorax.
Spoiler alert: the Lorax ends with one young person having to clean up someone else’s mess.
WARREN: Miguel, thanks very much to you. So, there’ve been methane leaks --with a lot less than full disclosure. And that plan to keep the Sun Valley Power Station running on fossil fuel longer than others. We heard the DWP General Manager Marty Adams say residents were making, “somewhat of a sacrifice in support of the overall efforts of the city to reach a greener future.” Well, the residents weren’t buying that, and they hired a lawyer to file a class action lawsuit.
After the lawsuit was filed, and after all that highly publicized community anger, DWP’s now saying it’ll shut down the Sun Valley Plant after all. But that’s part of a long-term plan, and it’s not clear when it might happen or that the residents’ lawsuit will go away.
Now Sun Valley, near Pacoima, isn’t the only neighborhood where activists have organized against the destructive health effects of gas emissions, both on the ground and on their way into the atmosphere.
Laura: So our org is called East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice and we got our name in 2001 when we were formed by community residents because of the East yard, which is a rail yard located between Commerce and East LA.
WARREN: That’s Laura Cortez. She’s talking transportation central.
Laura: Forty percent of all goods around the country come in through our ports. Forty percent of everything that goes into the country. And a lot of times it goes through our hoods, but not to our hoods. But the health impacts do. Right. And so we see that when we see that there's a huge freeway, the 710 freeway, that runs right by my house, which is a huge hub for trucks to be able to come from the ports into these intermodal facilities.
WARREN: “Intermodal facilities”. That’s another word for warehouses.
Laura: And here in the southeast where I live, there's just a lot of truck traffic. It has a lot of pollution, which includes criteria pollutants that are super harmful to human health and then also worsens greenhouse gases. So we are also severely impacted on both of those fronts in our neighborhoods. And so in my neighborhood specifically, I'm really close to the freeway. I see a lot of smaller warehouses that are up against elementary schools. Right. And these rail yards, of course, that we can’t ignore.
WARREN: Now consider Caltrans and Metro, they have big plans. They want to expand the 710 freeway through those South East LA neighborhoods, where it’s already eight lanes wide.
Laura: The original, original plan wanted to expand the freeway to 16 lanes total.
WARREN: Now when the project was first announced, public hearings were held but they were mostly empty.
Laura: I think one of the first things that struck me when I started organizing with how many meetings there are where people don't attend. I personally believe that a lot of that is intentional, that we are intentionally not brought to the table. But other folks are right, industry folks are there a lot of times and they're getting paid to be there.
WARREN: Well, Laura and her friends started to make themselves known by attending the meetings. Six years ago, they finally got to the table, coordinating events with heavy-weight players to talk about things, including freeway expansion.
Laura: We had a few meetings with Caltrans and Metro, but very specifically Caltrans. I will never forget those meetings. It was a series of three meetings. And it was very humorous to me because the outcome of all three meetings was consistently that it “was just not how they did things.” And when we asked, well, where does it say you cannot do these things? Or prioritize these things? And they could not add to that, consistently. And it was just a “well, that's just not how we do it.” And, I’m like that's not in your books and that doesn't make sense.
WARREN: So people who’ve been out of sight and out of mind finally got to government agencies -- even to elected officials. But, when it came to their specific proposals? “Sorry, we don’t do it that way.” The classic response of an entrenched establishment. Laura and her troops kept on trying.
Laura: There's been ebbs and flows. Prior to me being part of this project, I know we had already had some wins because Metro was able to change the scope to include public health as a priority for this project. And at one point I remember local city electeds, who we had had these conversations with and these local city electeds voted basically in our favor, which really meant we are voting for this alternative. We need you to study this. This would study zero emissions. This would study local hire, this would study no displacement. And we don't always get wins at a city level like that.
WARREN: That victory was in 2018 and it was limited. It didn’t upend the expansion program entirely, but it did force authorities to look at greener alternatives and at the people they hadn’t really noticed before.
Laura: And so now we're in a beautiful space where a lot of times we are invited, but sometimes we still are not. And it was constantly just showing up to meetings, constantly meeting with electeds. Community is so, so important because it's not I'm speaking to you today, but this is not me. This is so many community members who have done just this. So many community members who attend these meetings, who take the time, who should be making dinner or working or have could be watching a Netflix series. Right. There's so many other things these folks can do, but understand the importance of this work and continuously show up to these meetings and are well informed. And that's what creates our space at the table.
Warren: So do you think that you're having actually an impact on climate change? Do you think that in some ways you're actually making it better?
Laura: Yeah, I definitely think that we're making it better. I think that it happens one policy at a time. I think that it happens one public comment at a time. One member meeting at a time. And ultimately, it's these one-on-one conversations. Right. Folks, if I'm out here advocating for climate change improvements by myself, I'm not going to achieve very much, but when we're all understanding what are the consequences to our health with climate change and we're all having these conversations, then we're all learning what these policies are, then we’re all making public comments that'll change a regional policy that will then improve climate change and all of these things, which is why I keep coming back to, right, indigenous folks from this land have taught us the way. And it's our job to be good stewards of this land. And by doing that, we're actually supporting and creating healthier communities for each other and for future generations.
WARREN: Future generations. That’s what this Climate Change series is all about. And Laura discovered what it’ll take for them to make some kind of a difference.
Laura: I got into organizing very late into my life. I did not know that community organizing existed. I did not know that there was what you could call a fight, a lucha, or a resistance that existed, especially in my neighborhood. And it wasn't until I was getting my bachelor's degree in Spanish that I realized that there was this thing called sociology and it was the study of people. And I was like, “I'm great with people. I love people, let me learn more about that.” And I was able to continue that study and learn more about just organizing in general. And at that point I had no idea what organizing was. I didn't realize that I was impacted by environmental racism in my neighborhood and that that's how I grew up and had no clue. Full adult without knowing these things. And taking that one created a drive for me to learn and teach others that no matter how old you are, you can still learn these things.
WARREN: We’ve talked about social injustice and about reducing greenhouse emissions from transportation in South East LA and from that power plant in Sun Valley. But, what about finding alternative sources of power? Here’s another effort.
Danny: Today, about a hundred panels will go up on the roof.
WARREN: That’s Danny Hom. He’s the strategy officer for a group with an appropriate name: GRID Alternatives. I spoke to him in February about a project he’s coordinating at the Senior Center in Wilmington. That’s not far from Terminal Island and the Ports of LA and Long Beach. And, these places...
Danny: Really had a long history of relying on fossil fuels. And, energy historically in Los Angeles has been really intertwined with the fossil fuel industry. But as we shift more and more to renewables, of which solar is really front and center in California, you know, it really matters that we prioritize a community like this one that has a lot of pollution. So we've prioritized the center to install 96 panels on that roof and they'll be able to create solar energy that feeds into a battery backup system. And that battery storage system will be able to come online if some natural disaster or weather or even something man made were to compromise the ability of this really key community center to have power. Then folks who rely on this space are still going to be able to come here to charge their cell phone. They're still going to be able to receive meal service in some situations.
WARREN: Cell phones, meal service, and maybe a lot more. Here’s Alex Turek, multi-family and nonprofit-program manager at GRID Alternatives.
Alex: So we expect this backup power to be able to be provided for two days time. And, you know, generally power outages lasts for a couple hours, sometimes it can be longer than that, but we really designed this system to provide that backup power for air conditioning, for refrigeration, for the powering of medical equipment. You know, really these critical loads that are going to need power even when the grid is down.
WARREN: Nothing new about solar power, you might say, but solar panels? Batteries? They just cost too much for a place like the Wilmington Senior Center. It just can’t afford to go green on its own. But GRID Alternatives found a way by tapping into a program called Energy For All that’s subsidized by the state.
Alex: Right now in California, it's a really exciting time for solar development, specifically at affordable housing sites. There was a bill passed a couple of years ago called the Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing Bill that allocated one billion dollars over 10 years, specifically for solar on multifamily affordable housing in California. So this really contributes to and responds to two of the major issues in California. Obviously, the housing affordability. This reduces the cost of developing these projects by reducing their energy costs, while also responding to our sustainability goals as a state.
WARREN: As you can tell, the Wilmington Senior Center isn’t GRID’s only project. Here’s Danny again…
Danny: We recently hit the mark where we had served ten thousand families. And I think that we'd like to, you know, if at all possible and with the support of the community, get to another ten thousand in the next year or two. And we're just one organization that's working in this space. The other, you know, point I'd like to sort of make is that it's not just a number for us as a mission driven organization with an equity perspective. It's not just a matter of raw number of clients. It's about equity in who we serve. And I'll emphasize that in the communities that I work in here in Los Angeles, the communities that that I think a lot of us see every day, it's important that those communities are at the front of the line because for generations those communities have had to deal with extractive industry and they've had to deal with an economic picture that only allowed them to do warehousing, perhaps, or that kept them from employment and something like a green economy. It's those people who I think on a personal level should really be brought into the opportunities that are expanding in the green space maybe before anyone else. And that's, I think, how well we'll make progress on some of the big problems that we deal with racially in this society, you know, beyond energy usage.
WARREN: Now for Danny Hom, pollution and climate change, they’re not just part of his work as a professional. They’re personal.
Danny: You know, I've lived here all my life down here in the Southern part of Los Angeles, California. And for me, what we talk about when we say that communities are disproportionately carrying the burden of fossil fuels here in California has really hit home. When I was in my early thirties, I was diagnosed with a congenital heart condition. You know, there's no history of heart problems in my family, but at the same time I lived for two years, almost three on the Wilmington oil fields. Right. Not at a refinery, but at what the sort of landscape encompasses of the Wilmington oil field and was born in the next oil field over. The Long Beach oil field. Wilmington is the third biggest oil field in the country. Long Beach is like a top 10. So, you know, I mean, as a person who deals with the sort of the medical ramifications of what I see as not just oil, but like really in childhood being close to freeways. Right. And shipping and things like that. I mean, all these things have, have real implications on people's health, not just me. So I have the privilege of having great access to health care. Never at any point in my life was I food insecure or, you know, not able to sort of seek out the services that I really needed and can manage my health today. And I'm in a good position even post heart surgery now in 2021. But at the same time, it's hard for me to ignore that there are a lot of folks right here in Wilmington who have the same relationship to oil, and they didn't choose that relationship. Right. We didn't choose to be living on this land that's been a focal point for extractive industries. I think a lot of us just associated industrial activity, heavy shipping with the way that the land is used. And we've never imagined the greener future.
WARREN: It’s all too clear too few of us have imagined a greener future. Even while California’s a leader in thinking up strategies for going green, we still haven’t mustered the political will to do what’s needed in time. A big part of the problem: that institutional inertia so resistant to making change. Even when alternatives might be available.
Warren: Put Los Angeles in the context of the kind of climate tech that you're concerned about. And how are we doing?
Genevieve: You know, I think we're doing okay.
WARREN: Genevieve Liang is a Climate Tech Strategist…
Genevieve: But I think for Los Angeles, you know, we have quite a ways to go. If you're talking about the city itself, the city’s utility -- electric, electric and water utility -- the LADWP still relies on about 30 percent coal that is imported from generation stations in other states.
WARREN: Actually, it’s more like 21%. But, in any case, coal-fired power plants in other states, again -- out of sight, out of mind. And, despite all the good intentions professed by administrators and elected officials, changing direction is like turning an ocean liner in the Suez Canal.
Genevieve: In terms of utilities, there's utilities that promote their customers to own and to operate what is called distributed energy and especially distributed energy that runs off of renewable sources. And then there are utilities, no matter which stripe you are, whether you're public or your investor-owned, that very actively resist providing those new avenues for their customers. And I would say that LADWP has not quite really gotten in the game of promoting or, you know, opening up programs for their customers to participate in their own energy generation in a more democratic way.
Warren: Elaborate on what you mean by that. What’s the problem with that?
Genevieve: Okay, so, you know, you're probably familiar with folks over the past maybe 15 years, 10 years putting a lot of solar on their own homes and businesses.
Warren: I’m one of them.
Genevieve: Great, Great. So, you’re doing that under a program most likely called Net Energy Metering. And, you know, that is sort of a fundamental building block of the distributed energy menu.
WARREN: Distributed energy, she has mentioned that several times. It’s local power generation, like solar panels and emergency backup generators.
Genevieve: One of the things that we really lack is more programs that allow for its customers to participate in distributed energy resources that are at the community scale.
WARREN: “Community scale.” A solar project that might serve a city block or a neighborhood. No more worries about a widespread outage caused by a power plant 30 miles away, like those getting all too familiar. But, in LA, communities aren’t doing that yet.
Genevieve: It's against the law to do it if you are trying to build a bigger system. So you can do it yourself on your own property. Your own single point of control. Where they have problems is when you have multiple points of control, let's say, that have to be orchestrated all together in a bigger setup.
WARREN: Now to be fair, there are other, more practical hurdles to creating independent grids. How could we assure they’d be safely managed? Should options be accessible beyond single-family homes? For apartment complexes? And low-income communities? Now a different kind of obstacle is the way utility companies were originally set up.
Genevieve: Our history with electric utilities and other types of, I would say, fundamental public goods like water, has always been very much a one way delivery, centralized resources type of model. And utility companies of all shapes and sizes, especially the bigger ones, have found it really difficult to think about allowing their customers or their users to start having a sort of dialog in electrons with the utility because they're very used to being the center of command and having all of the controls and not having assets that are kind of on the fringe of their territories that might come up and potentially pose a kind of a mini-management challenge to them.
WARREN: The inability or unwillingness to embrace new ways of doing things? Hardly limited to the DWP or CalTrans. When threats like greenhouse emissions in Wilmington or Sun Valley can so easily drop out of sight, they almost inevitably drop out of mind. Given the inertia of centralized institutions and entrenched political power. Over time, neighborhoods have become divided against each other with one getting help at the expense of another. Grassroots organizations are a welcome development, but they’re hard to sustain and they can’t make changes all by themselves. They can force attention to social injustice -- not just as a consequence of climate change, but also as a cause in itself. Something all of us need to see clearly.
Next week. Red Hot.
In Our Backyard is an original series from Inside Media Voices and WOComm.
It’s hosted by me, Warren Olney.
Our producer is Julie Carli.
With fact checking by Alec Cowan.
Sound design by Katie McMurran.
This series was made possible through the generous support of Climate Resolve, which addresses global climate change with local action. Learn more about Climate Resolve at climate resolve dot org.
I want to give special thanks to Sammy Roth of The LA Times for his original reporting. It inspired this episode. There’s a link in our show notes to sign up for his climate change newsletter -- Boiling Point.