LA's Trained Solar Workers Lack A Market
Three years later, creating a green collar workforce to solve our unemployment woes has not turned out to be the magic bullet it once seemed. Obama did not mention the concept once in his September American Jobs Act pitch to Congress.
University of Southern California researcher Manuel Pastor understands “green jobs fatigue,” but he says the idea was initially oversold.
“Green jobs were meant to be a solution, not the solution,” Pastor said Wednesday at the 10th Annual Mayoral Housing, Transportation and Jobs Summit. The event was held at the University of California, Los Angeles and hosted by the Los Angeles Business Council.
Pastor and UCLA’s J.R. DeShazo teamed up to investigate LA’s potential for green jobs in the solar market. They discovered a new workforce that Pastor characterized as “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”
With state and local legislation setting renewable energy benchmarks, non-profits, community colleges and private companies in LA are now training about 2,000 workers a year in solar power jobs.
According to the team, however, LA’s public utility, the Department of Water and Power (DWP), has delayed policy changes that would create a sizable solar market in the city and bring the green jobs dream to life.
Jose Osuna, the Solar Panel Training Program Coordinator for Homeboy Industries, goes to jails and rough neighborhoods looking for potential participants for his four-month-long training program. That’s the easy part, he said. The challenge begins when Osuna has to connect his graduates with actual jobs.
Last year, 100 people graduated from the program. Within 60 days, 65 graduates had permanent jobs. Unfortunately, 45 of those jobs were outside LA County, 18 were within the county and only two were in the city of LA.
“I’m the guy who represents the guy that wants the job but he can’t afford to drive out to San Bernardino County every day to work,” said Osuna.
The good news is that Pastor and DeShazo’s research has found a lot of overlap between areas of the highest unemployment in LA and the most potential for commercial and large-scale solar rooftop projects. Larger commercial projects are cheaper and simpler than residential installations, said DeShazo, and they get us to California’s 33 percent renewable power goal faster and with fewer administrative costs. The current rebates the DWP offers aren’t attracting businesses at the level that would really begin to create permanent jobs here, he said.
What the city needs, argue Pastor and DeShazo, is a sizable feed-in-tariff: a program that guarantees power producers a set price (above market rate) for the solar energy they generate and also send back to the grid. With this set price, a business could offset all of its power costs and profit from the energy it sells back to the utility.
The feed-in-tariff brings us back again to 2008, the year LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa initially called for a 150-megawatt feed-in-tariff program in LA. Though talks at City Hall have progressed this fall, the utility has yet to implement a feed-in-tariff.
The DWP, DeShazo said, has been “slow and timid” in its approach to adopting a feed-in-tariff, a mechanism that is “not rocket science.” There’s urgency in their call, which is joined by the mayor and the LA Business Council, for the DWP to roll out the program. Not only is there a cadre of trained workers waiting for solar jobs in LA, but federal tax credits that would cut the price of the program in half will expire within the next three and a half years.
“We are wasting human resources,” and risk leaving federal money on the table, said Pastor.
As Pastor and DeShazo wound down their research presentation, Tony Salazar, West Coast president for the developer McCormack Baron Salazar, pointed to the DWP’s representative, commissioner Jonathan Parfrey, and warned, “He will take a beating before this over.”
Critics of the DWP now have more numbers to point to. Pastor and DeShazo’s USC-UCLA team found that while Southern California Edison had installed 119.11 watts of solar power per customer in 2010, the DWP lagged far behind with only 18.25 watts per customer.
Parfrey explained the DWP’s stance in terms of dollars and cents and local control. He compared media coverage of any rate changes by the two utilities. Southern California Edison could raise rates and the change would end up below the fold in the business section, whereas if the DWP proposed a change it was front-page news. Any moves the citizen-owned utility makes are heavily politicized. Furthermore, he added, the DWP offers rates that are 20 percent lower than those of Southern California Edison.
“We need financial help,” Parfrey said. “Are the people of LA willing to step up?”
It was a question Villaraigosa echoed in his keynote address. Greening the city is something the public wants, but it will cost more, he said.
“When it comes to paying the bill, elected officials say ‘it’s on the Mayor.’ No, it’s on everybody.”
The mayor also took a shot at the DWP, reiterating that he does not believe the proposed feed-in-tariff program of 75 megawatts by 2016 was big enough, especially if a crucial part of the goal is to create permanent jobs within the city limits.
Parfrey emphasized that the DWP is pushing the feed-in-tariff forward.
Whether the proposed program will offer enough of a financial incentive to create jobs in LA remains to be seen; so does whether it will be implemented before it becomes twice as expensive, due to the expected phase-out of federal incentives.
Reach contributor Emily Frost here.
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