In the 1940s and 1950s, the glamor of Los Angeles was dimmed by choking clouds of brown smog. Parents kept their children out of school, while rates of asthma and lung disease shot up. Los Angeles was among the dirtiest cities in the country. Today, things have changed dramatically. The city is pursuing an ambitious sustainability plan, which is powered in part by solar power in Los Angeles. In fact, the city that was once infamous for its noxious pollution was ranked the number one solar energy city in America by the California Research & Policy Center.
How did the City of Angels manage such a miraculous turnaround, and what part did solar play in its lofty revitalization? Finally, how will major new environmental decisions within the city and the state of California affect Los Angeles residents in the future?
Attack of the Smog
It would have made for a good Hollywood horror flick – in the early 1940s, residents of Los Angeles noticed a foul-smelling, brown tinge to the air, which made their eyes water and their lungs burn. The effect was so dramatic that some residents believed it was a chemical attack from the Japanese as part of the ongoing war!
Over the following decades, smog would regularly choke residents of Los Angeles, forcing children to stay home from school and canceling athletic events. Doctors noticed more and more patients reporting asthma and lung conditions, while lung autopsies on young car accident victims in 1987 revealed that over 25% had seriously damaged lungs!
The citizens of Los Angeles demanded answers, and their protests helped lead to the first nascent environmental laws. In 1963, Congress enacted the first Clean Air Act, which was updated with stronger regulations in the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1975 when the United States required that all new cars include catalytic converters, that the problem of smog finally began to dissipate (though it is still a serious problem in major cities throughout the world, most notably in Beijing.)
While the catalytic converters helped make driving a little less dirty, it didn’t change the fact that Los Angeles and the entire country was powered by dirty fossil fuels. The city and the country needed an alternative, but alternative energy technology was seriously limited.
The Slow Evolution of Solar Panels
Solar panels may seem like a relatively new technology, since they only started appearing en masse on rooftops over the past two decades. The truth, however, is that the technology was discovered over 150 years ago in 1839 by French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerellar.
The first solar panels as most of us would recognize them were invented in Bell Labs in 1954, during some of the worst smog years in Los Angeles. At that time, however, solar panels were more of an amusing novelty. Boasting an anemic one percent efficiency, they could hardly keep a few lightbulbs shining, much less power entire homes!
For several decades, the promise of solar power remained unrealized. Oil was cheap and climate change was a virtually unknown threat still on the horizon. It wasn’t until the oil embargos of the 1970s forced Americans to line up at gas pumps across the country that researchers, politicians, and everyday citizens recognized the value of developing alternative energy. This led to a rush of funding, research, and development into renewable energy.
In 1978, the federal government passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act and the Energy Tax Act, which laid the groundwork for net metering and offered tax credits to consumers who adopted solar panels.
Spurred by all this interest and money, solar panel technology improved quickly, along with the manufacturing process. Together, these trends led to big increases in solar panel efficiency and significantly lower costs.
Today, many of the top solar panel brands offer an efficiency of just over 20%. Prices for solar panel systems have also dropped around 60% over the last decade. These big changes have led to a steady increase in solar adoption across the entire country.
But how did Los Angeles become the leader of the solar panel pack? It starts with that fact that Los Angeles is located in a state that embraces renewable energy.
California – Land of the Solar Panels
Los Angeles may produce the most solar power of any city in the country, but it is hardly an outlier in California. The Golden State has made a big bet on going green and put into place some of the most ambitious (and strictest) clean energy laws in the land.
In 1996, Governor Pete Wilson deregulated the state’s investor-owned utilities and offered incentives for the public utilities to allow solar systems to connect to their grids. This paved the way for California’s incredibly powerful and successful net metering system, which makes solar power in Los Angeles so affordable.
In 2015, Governor Jerry Brown set what seemed like an extremely ambitious goal by signing Senate Bill 350, which required the state to produce 33% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. In response, California rose to the challenge and surpassed its 2020 goal three years early!
Perhaps it was these impressive results that convinced Governor Brown to cement his green energy legacy by signing Senate Bill 100 just this past month, which committed California to becoming 100% energy independent and carbon free by 2045. This commitment dramatically raises the bar for California and makes it only the second state in the union to commit to completely cutting their reliance on fossil fuels.
How will California and Los Angeles achieve such a big goal? Solar will be a big part of the equation. In May of this year, California made big waves when the California Energy Commission voted unanimously to require all new homes and businesses to have solar power, starting in 2020.
California’s aggressive environmental goals mean that every city within the state, especially its most populous, will need to make big changes. How is solar power in Los Angeles helping the state meet its carbon-free commitments?
The Sun Is the Biggest Star in Hollywood
Los Angeles is ready to lead the state of California and the country in adopting solar power. According to the report, “Shining Cities 2018: How Smart Local Policies Are Expanding Solar Power in America,” Los Angeles has installed 349.3 megawatts of solar power through the city. That’s enough energy to power 82,500 homes, take over 40,000 cars off the road, and eliminate 187,304 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.
Tinsel Town is just getting started. The city recently unveiled a 2.21 MW(megawatt) solar installation on the Los Angeles Convention Center, which represents the largest solar system on a publicly-owned convention center on the entire west coast.
Mayor Eric Garcetti has also unveiled an ambitious multi-pronged Sustainable City pLAn for Los Angeles that includes a focus on installing more solar power, improving air quality, managing the city’s water supply, investing in green jobs, and completing 28 major Metro projects by the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic games.
As part of the Sustainable City pLAn, Los Angeles has already launched “Solar Rooftops,” a program that installs solar panels in communities with low solar penetration. The Sustainable City pLAn has also streamlined the online permitting process, making it faster and easier than ever for LA residents and businesses to go solar.
With so much focus on solar installation in Los Angeles, what can residents expect for LA’s solar future?
A City with a Bright Future
As California begins to implement its goal to go carbon neutral by 2045, solar power will be a big part of that solution. In 2020, all new homes and businesses within Los Angeles will be required to have some solar capacity. That means that solar panels will become much more abundant throughout the city, even in low-income neighborhoods, thanks to Los Angeles’ “Solar Rooftops,” initiative.
However, citizens may not notice as much of a visual change. That’s because Tesla is producing solar panel roof tiles that look just like ordinary roof tiles. (They currently offer four options: Tuscan, slate, textured, and smooth glass tiles.) Other companies are working to improve the appearance of solar panels by eliminating the frames or even making “solar skins” that help panels blend into a home’s existing roof.
LA residents may also be able to enjoy a lot more bang for their solar panel buck. While today’s top panels offer just over 20% efficiency, researchers have been able to achieve 46% efficiency using advanced materials in a lab setting. It may be a while until a solar panel with that level of efficiency hits the consumer market, but we now know that it is possible.
The near future may also crack one of the biggest challenges of using solar – the relative lack of storage potential. Solar panels have always been hamstrung by the fact that they only produce energy when the sun is out and shining. New battery technology, including Tesla’s Powerwall, are starting to change that dynamic and make it possible for homeowners and utilities to store excess solar power. Exciting announcements in this field may presage even more advancements in battery technology.
One of those big technological leaps may be happening right here in Los Angeles. Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong recently announced that his company, NantEnergy, based in Phoenix and El Segundo, has developed a battery that utilizes zinc and oxygen, which he claims is much more affordable, safe, and powerful than the lithium-ion batteries we use today to power electric cars and store solar power. Dr. Soon-Shiong, who also owns the Los Angeles Times and is a part owner of the LA Lakers, has already tested the zinc-oxygen batteries in several villages in Africa and Asia and cell phone towers in the United States. The next huge leap in solar technology could already be here, right in the heart of Los Angeles!
Solar Power Is Home in Los Angeles
Los Angeles has come a long, long way from a city choking on poisonous smog. Today, it is leading the charge to adopt clean energy, fight climate change, and protect the health of its citizens. As solar panel technology continues to improve, especially in the department of solar battery storage, Los Angeles could one day become a city that runs entirely on renewable energy in a state with a zero carbon footprint.
It may seem like a wishful daydream, but Los Angeles is all about making dreams come true. We are glad to be a part of that dream. If you are interested in solar installation in Los Angeles, contact us today to schedule a free, no-pressure energy analysis.